HC Deb 23 April 1998 vol 310 cc996-1063

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

5.7 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

I begin by associating myself with the Minister's opening remarks. He will be relieved to hear that I do not plan to speak for more than an hour. Many of my hon. Friends who sit behind me have a great deal to say and I know that they would not thank me for speaking for longer than an hour.

The Minister started by mentioning the agility, versatility and reach that are attributes of the Royal Air Force. However, as shown by my hon. Friends the Members for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), agility, versatility and reach are also hallmarks of the Conservative party when it comes to discussing aircraft types.

My speech will be largely complementary to what the Minister had to say and not repetitive. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will be pleased to hear that.

I, too, wish a happy birthday to the Royal Air Force in this very important year for it. I wish especially to include in these birthday greetings the former as well as the currently serving men and women of the Royal Air Force. They have a proud record in the battle of Britain, in the Berlin airlift, in the Falklands, in the Gulf and in Bosnia, where humanitarian supplies were delivered to Sarajevo in the great tradition of the RAF. Those missions and the RAF's work in the no-fly zones over Iraq are remarkable achievements, as is its continuing, quiet and unsung work in Northern Ireland, to which the Minister also referred.

I should like to link with those compliments the Ministry of Defence's civilian employees, the scientific civil service and the industrial civil service. The management structures with which they live change, the agencies change and the nature of the work changes, but usually the same people are on the ground—or in the air—as for example at Boscombe Down in my constituency.

I include in my remarks the wider Royal Air Force community; all the wives, husbands and children, the proud relatives and the proud local communities who live with the Royal Air Force. Wherever there is a Royal Air Force station in Britain—or elsewhere in the world—associated with it will be pride, loyalty, a special sense of community and, of course, additional economic prosperity, which spreads far beyond the perimeter fence. Civilians may not like the noise, as the Minister said, but they would surely miss the Royal Air Force if it went.

The Opposition warmly welcome the debate. It is always important that the House has an opportunity to be heard on our services. We were delighted and surprised that the Government's business managers chose this moment for the Royal Air Force debate. I suspect that the Ministry of Defence was also surprised, although perhaps not delighted, with the timing. The debate takes place in a vacuum. It is too late to have much influence on the strategic defence review and too early for Ministers to report the results of the review to the House. There is, however, a great deal to say about the Royal Air Force.

Can the Minister give any indication when we can expect the single-service debates on the Royal Navy and the Army? The Minister and I have been in the House long enough to know that there are occasions when, through the usual channels, business can be arranged to avoid Divisions on particular evenings. I suspect that this is one of those evenings, as I notice that the Labour party has a £500-a-ticket fund-raising thrash to which Labour Back Benchers have clearly flocked—I don't think. It is in everybody's interest to have some idea about the timing of the Royal Navy and Army debates and how they might relate to the strategic defence review announcement.

Can the Minister give us any more information about the progress of the strategic defence review, which is already very much delayed? We were told that it would be a six-month process; it is now getting on for a year. We all hope that the fruits of the labours of the three services and the Ministry of Defence will be agreed by Cabinet and, perhaps, exempted from the Treasury's comprehensive spending review, although I doubt it, as it is scheduled for completion in June.

It would be serious if the SDR slipped into the comprehensive spending review, and if publication was delayed beyond July. A six-month review that slips to 12 months would be damaging for the services and for the whole defence procurement industry. Damage has already been done to morale in the services and to defence procurement. We encourage Defence Ministers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said, to fight their corner hard with the Cabinet and the Treasury, and we shall do everything we can to help them.

Looking ahead, and in the wake of the strategic defence review, will Ministers think about the future format of our defence debates? For two years running we have not debated the defence estimates. We deplore that. We expect a substantial debate on the outcome of the SDR, but in future years, and in view of the changing nature of joint operations between the services, should not the House have one tri-service debate on operations and personnel, one on defence expenditure and another on defence procurement? Those are areas that we could explore in future.

The Conservative Opposition follow the established and respected tradition of supporting our services whole-heartedly. We know that almost all our service men and women want defence to be above party politics. It is unthinkable that the Government of the day, of whichever party, would commit forces to action in theatre without the support of the Opposition. It is important that Opposition spokesmen and Opposition Members are briefed by the military and visit our forces on base, station, and ship and in theatre. That cements the commitment of Parliament to our forces and of our forces to the Crown. We are grateful to the Government for their continuing courtesy in enabling us to perform our role efficiently and effectively.

The Minister will know from his time in opposition—and will agree—that the Opposition must energetically pursue their proper role, and we shall. We shall listen to the forces, the academics, the procurement industry and our constituents. We shall probe, prod and cajole Ministers. We shall tell them things that they would rather not hear, and tell them things that those with whom they work would rather keep from them.

The Government know that we did not support their need for the SDR. There had been enough reviews and studies. We have promised the military a period of stability. When the SDR is eventually unveiled, we will want to know when we can expect the next review. Will the Government revert to a tradition of annual, rolling reviews linked to the public spending round, or will they follow the American or other traditions of quadrennial or quinquennial reviews?

Our response to the SDR will be positive. We will probably oppose some of the leaked proposals, such as leaks about the territorial services, because we believe that they are wrong, but we will consider the review carefully and thoroughly. No doubt we will hope to be able to support much of it, but our first reaction on the day of publication will be followed by a period of careful evaluation. It is true that there has been much opportunity for comment and consultation, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate said, it all went into something of a black hole. Apart from a couple of coded messages, we still know nothing about the secret foreign policy baselines on which the SDR has been based and it is empty to suggest otherwise, however much one scrutinises the speeches of the Secretary of State and others.

Mr. Bayley

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a period of stability. Do his comments reflect a change in his party's policy? During the last six years it was in office, review after review—each described as a bitter pill to swallow, but a final one—did a tremendous amount not just to whittle down the size of the armed forces but to undermine their morale. Is he now saying that that was a mistake?

Mr. Key

The hon. Gentleman asked a long question, as he usually does, and my answer is short—no. What I said appears in the previous debate on the defence estimates, in 1996. It was the policy declared by Michael Portillo when Secretary of State—that there would now be a period of stability.

Mr. Blunt

Does my hon. Friend share the concerns that Field Marshal Vincent, one of the informal advisers to the Ministry of Defence on the strategic defence review, placed on the record in the Defence Committee—that there was no foreign policy base line to rely on, even for advisers inside the Department, other than the speeches made at the Royal United Services Institute and elsewhere by the Secretary of State, to help advise the Department?

Mr. Key

I have indeed heard that. I had hoped that some of those worries would be discounted today, but apparently not. It is serious when distinguished people feel that there is a fundamental flaw in the Government's strategic defence review. I certainly share my hon. Friend's concern about that.

Now for some probing and cajoling. I shall ask the Minister some questions arising from discussions with Royal Air Force families and their representatives. On Saturday, it is the Association of RAF Wives' annual conference. They would never say so, but I know that wives are disappointed that no Minister is able to attend. The RAF has been through a period of contraction and increased commitments, and the wives have borne theirs full share of the consequences. Were a Minister to attend—I am sure that there are good reasons why they will not—I dare say he would hear that there is much for which they are thankful, but some real concerns, too. When families are posted abroad, the wives or spouses usually have to leave their jobs, and do not pay national insurance in their own right for that period. When they return to the United Kingdom, they are disqualified from some of the benefits to which they would normally be entitled. I cannot believe that we cannot find a way around that in the social security review. I invite Defence Ministers to take that up with Ministers in the Department of Social Security to see whether we can assist those families. The aspirations of RAF families have changed during the years, and it is right that wives should seek work while their husbands are at work.

My second concern is pre-school education. In the United Kingdom there is a choice between pre-school playgroups and school for four-year-olds. Such a choice is a normal civilian aspiration, and parents make their choice in the belief that pre-school playgroups are more appropriate for some children than others, but sometimes when RAF families go abroad, notably to some parts of Germany, they have no such choice and have to send their children to schools where inappropriate pressure may be put on them. I should be grateful if the Minister would consider that.

Special educational needs pose another problem. I compliment the Ministry of Defence on the great progress that has been made. Parents are not forced to serve overseas if they have a child in need of special care, but often parents prefer to go overseas as part of their normal work. Sometimes, service schools abroad have special needs provision, but often they do not. In particular, special needs provision is apparently being cut in Cyprus. I should be grateful if the Minister would check that out, too.

Then there is the matter of the separation of husbands and wives when husbands are sent on detachment overseas. Some men are now sent three times or more to Bosnia or the Gulf. A year ago we were told that those separations were being monitored, and I and the Association of RAF Wives would be grateful if the results of that monitoring could be published.

The RAF wives have told me that they are impressed by the determination of the Defence housing executive and Annington Homes to provide a good service for them. Sometimes that service falls down on station, but complaints are referred by the Association of RAF Wives to the Defence housing executive and they are usually sorted. RAF wives are glad of that. I am glad to say that their worst fears have not been realised.

Finally, there is the vexed question of quarantine for pets, which has a huge effect on the families of RAF personnel. Literally thousands of forces families are caught by the system, which is cruel, expensive and unnecessary. There is a better way of doing that which will improve our safety against rabies. I know that the Government have set up a review and that quarantine will always be needed for pets brought in from some countries, but surely not from Cyprus, which is rabies-free, or from married quarters in Germany. The Government's review of quarantine is proceeding at a leisurely pace. Will the Minister ensure that the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, is aware that thousands of forces families hope for action soon?

The Minister has been strong in his support for cadets, and I pay tribute to him for that. The Air Cadet Council has meetings in the next few weeks to consider the serious financial constraints that are appearing over the horizon for it. The contraction of flying sites and the loss of gliding sites has also been serious. The further cadets have to travel, the more difficult and expensive flying experience becomes. Some air cadets are forced to give up, and others are deterred from joining.

The Minister knows that air cadets gain an invaluable inside knowledge of the RAF and the world of flying. They learn loyalty, dedication and discipline, and they reap the benefits of training at an early age. There are more than 40,000 RAF cadets, including members of the Air Training Corps and the air element of the Combined Cadet Force. Astonishingly, about 50 per cent. of the RAF officer entry and 26 per cent. of airmen entrants have been members of the cadets at some stage. That is truly remarkable. The Minister will agree about the importance of promoting the interests of the air cadets and ensuring that they have adequate resources.

I come now to the less agreeable subject of morale at the front line of the RAF. The Minister and I spend much time listening to what people think we ought to know. We also use our eyes and ears, but mine have been picking up some signals that he may have missed. As he said, no one should doubt for a moment the professionalism, skill and dedication of our pilots or of Opposition Members who raise controversial issues. People should not mistake or misunderstand what I am about to say.

Pilots have told me that they hear politicians praising them, as today, Government and Opposition Members alike, but they sometimes worry that we are insulated from the day-to-day realities of life in the RAF. What I am about to say is what they want the House to understand. There has been a lot of talk about the lack of a future, or an uncertain future, in the RAF. One immediately points to the Eurofighter project, instituted by the previous Government and pursued energetically by the present Government, but that seems a long way off for some, who tell me that they feel that we have reaped the peace dividend but minor conflicts now pose much more of a threat and we, the politicians, apparently do not see that or refuse to acknowledge the consequences.

At the height of the cold war in the 1980s, the RAF had some 33 front-line combat squadrons to counter the Soviet threat. Each one was utilised—cannibalised—to fight the conflict in the Gulf. The RAF now has about 19 combat squadrons, yet vastly more commitments, with Bosnia, the Falklands, the Gulf, Iraq, and so on, than at the height of the cold war. The simple fact is that the RAF is vastly overstretched. I know that the Minister knows that, but people feel that the RAF does not have the resources it needs and, as a result, people on the ground feel that they are not appreciated.

I am told that promotion prospects are not good. To get up the ladder now, it is perceived that one must not only be good at one's flying job but take on extra, secondary, duties to show commitment to the service. People who spend seven months of the year out of the country on exercises and operations feel stressed and offended by that. Those who are leaving now are perceived to be the thin end of the wedge. As the Minister knows, the airlines are recruiting hard and the RAF seems unconcerned that its people are unhappy. I am told that simple things go by the wayside in the pursuit of greater efficiency. New flying suits for aircrew have been cancelled because of cost. That may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, but such economy measures rankle.

People feel that the RAF is not the place that it used to be. It is difficult to explain, but it is what so many have said. Basically, they mean that much of the fun has gone out of the job. Aircrew stayed in the RAF because of the fun factor. The hard work and the bad times were worth it because of the rewards, but there are fewer rewards now. One pilot said that he was pursuing a thankless task. Of course he is wrong, but that is how he feels.

Most people with an option to leave are considering doing so. Even those who said that life was okay said that they would still leave as soon as their engagement was complete. Only one pilot out of about 20 expressed a determination to stay.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

My hon. Friend has spent more hours talking to RAF personnel than most people in the past few months, and his comments are entirely true, but does he agree that it is not only pilots, but senior NCOs—the people who are posted round the world and have far longer detachments than pilots, who support pilots day in, day out and who have had no promotion for the past three years—who, when they come to a break clause, are likely to leave the RAF as soon as they can? Much more serious, if they are approaching the end of their term of service, they will retire with a lesser pension because they have not been promoted.

Mr. Key

My hon. Friend is right. Some of the points that I have been making have been relayed to me by airmen as well as flying officers. I am sure that my hon. Friend will acknowledge that what he describes was happening under the Conservative Government, but we told Ministers that, if the SDR slipped, and if there was more uncertainty, the consequence would be a serious failure of morale. I fear that that is happening. Every week we delay on the SDR gives weight to what my hon. Friend has just said.

Mr. Bayley

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time.

I did the attachment with the RAF three years ago, and much the same sentiments were expressed to me by pilots and NCOs. Morale was low. We should hope that the strategic defence review will address those issues, which undermined morale in the armed forces three years ago, two years ago and in the past year and, sadly, were not addressed before.

Mr. Key

The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that those issues were not addressed before; the Bett report dealt with them. Those difficult problems have persisted for years, but I of course hope that they will be resolved.

Many people who do not have other options are accepting premature voluntary redundancy. They are leaving the RAF early and are losing gratuities and pension simply because they have had enough, which is bad news. People have talked to me about a huge shortage in middle management crews in about 12 to 18 months. The RAF now accepts that, and I am sure that Ministers are addressing the issue.

The Minister mentioned RAF Valley. I have been presented with a different picture and have heard that tactical flying instructors there are talking of huge problems. Some of the Hawk aircraft are on their last legs, we have heard stories of poor students coming into the system and it is said that about 90 per cent. of the instructors are studying for commercial licences. It is said that the training system is falling apart, although that is probably an exaggeration, and not enough new pilots are being produced. There is talk of a serious deficiency in front-line pilots in 12 months—there will possibly be 20 per cent. undermanning—and another person spoke of a shortage of 80 fast-jet pilots at the end of the year.

Before the Minister invites me to give way, I should say that I know that there was a problem under the Conservative Government, but it is getting worse. I draw it to Ministers' attention so that they can address it with vigour.

Dr. Reid

I was not going to say exactly that. I ask the hon. Gentleman, first, not to exaggerate the problems at RAF Valley.

Secondly, every nail that the hon. Gentleman hammers into the coffin of RAF Valley is hammered into the privatisation project with which the Conservative Government insisted on going ahead despite warnings from me and others that the problems that he claims are now occurring—I am not substantiating them—would happen. If he is correct, they are not a continuation, but the beginning of a problem arising out of the privatisation.

Mr. Key

I shall not pretend that all is rosy if it is not, but it is my duty to point problems out, which I do. I am not shy of pointing out where things have gone wrong, and I hope that the Minister will make a positive response to those difficulties. I am not seeking to drive nails into coffins, but I reiterate that my remarks reflect the genuine fears that have been expressed directly to me by pilots. We should discuss that matter seriously.

RAF Harrier force personnel are also said to be concerned about their continuing role on board ships because they spend an increasing time away from home. The problem of poaching by airlines, which the Minister rightly identified, will be added to if overstretch worsens.

Pilots are delighted about the Eurofighter. Although it will come into service in 2003, which is several years away, there are concerns that it will not be much more than a shell without much of its operational equipment working fully. I do not know the answer, but pilots are putting their concerns to me, and I hope that Ministers will take them seriously. It has also been suggested that there have been further delays to the in-service date or squadron deployment of the Eurofighter.

I have made those points with no pleasure. They are summed up by a pilot who is leaving the RAF early and losing a considerable sum of money in pension and gratuity rights. He said: I'm 33, I've got a wife who wants to work and a couple of kids I rarely see for months at a time … I work my fingers to the bone and yet no one seems to care until I screw something up under the pressure. I love the job but I just don't need the bullshit any more; British Airways will pay me more money for less work and treat me like a human being. Why should I stay in the RAF? There are lots of reasons why he should stay in the RAF, as the Minister and I would agree, but I urge the Minister to consider carefully the poaching of RAF pilots by airlines. We cannot ignore it.

I must mention another issue, which the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) also wants to discuss, before I move on to happier territory: the crash of Chinook helicopter ZD 576 on the Mull of Kintyre, which remains unfinished business. My remarks are not party political—the Minister awaits my submission on the matter, which is on the way—but for the sake of the families of the pilots and of the others who died, and for the sake of those serving currently who continue to be troubled by the verdict of gross negligence against the pilots, I put it on the record that a small cross-party group of Members of Parliament continues to pursue what we believe to be justice for the pilots.

The Minister has promised us words of wisdom about procurement. In a previous defence debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) raised the issue of Slingsby Aviation and the Bulldog replacement scheme. The initial proposal to replace the Bulldog came from Slingsby three or four years ago when the Ministry of Defence had purchased its first Firefly aircraft for joint flight training, based then at Topcliffe in North Yorkshire. Slingsby was also competing to supply more than 100 Firefly aircraft to the United States air force. It won the contract in the face of fierce competition. It also won the Queen's award for export. Air forces in 12 other countries have the Firefly aircraft in service.

The Ministry of Defence, through Hunting Aviation as main contractor, acquired a further 25 aircraft a couple of years ago for the Joint Elementary Flying Training Squadron. We understand that the aircraft are well regarded and that the contract is being fulfilled without difficulty.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the matter. In terms of testimony to the Firefly, not only did the United States air force procure 100 of the aircraft, but as recently as two and a half weeks ago the head of America's flight training education command, General Newton, came to Kirkbymoorside and expressed his total confidence in the Firefly. He and many air forces throughout the world would find it extremely strange if this country did not use it to replace the Bulldog.

Mr. Key

My hon. Friend's unremitting enthusiasm for Slingsby Aviation and the Firefly has been aired many times in the House. His constituents can be proud of his efforts and we shall no doubt return to the matter. I am not surprised that there has been such praise for the aircraft from the Americans.

Under current defence procurement arrangements, the Ministry of Defence has invited contractors to tender for the supply of an aircraft to replace the Bulldog on a number of hours flying time basis. Two contractors, Shorts and FRA Serco, have submitted bids. The FRA Serco preference is thought to be the Firefly, while Shorts prefers the Grob, which is a German aircraft.

The tendering process has gone on for well over two years. We are concerned that any cost advantage associated with the Shorts-Grob proposal results in part from a hidden subsidy, but we do not know whether that is the case. We know that the RAF has stipulated that, if the Firefly is chosen, it wants the more powerful Firefly 260, which is bigger and has more expensive running costs. That is no surprise, but it is a surprise that we hear that elements in the RAF are saying to Ministers, "Oh, but this aircraft has higher running costs, so we had better have another one." They asked for the aircraft and then said that they do not want the smaller versions. That is extraordinary, and Ministers must take a strong line because much is at stake.

The order is critical to maintaining an aircraft-building capability at Slingsby in Kirkbymoorside. Potential orders from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Canada are on hold while they wait to hear whether the RAF endorses the Firefly, which we know it already has because it has been flying it for some time. It is inconceivable that, in military equipment of this type, the Government could prefer a German alternative to a British product that has been so overwhelmingly endorsed by our major NATO allies.

It is said that some of the top brass in the RAF do not like the Firefly and are making a lot of criticisms and excuses to undermine ministerial confidence, saying that its design is 30 years old, that the cockpit is too small, that visibility on landing is poor or whatever. That is fine. All I can say is that the Firefly meets the anthropometric specification that was laid down by the RAF in the first place, and if it did not like it earlier, it should have said so then, not now. I therefore urge Ministers to come to a rapid decision.

I should be grateful if the Minister could shed a little light on the proposed management of the forthcoming tranche II of the Hercules rolling replacement programme. Conservative Members are clear that an enhancement of lift, both airlift and sealift, is necessary to provide the mobility that is required for the joint rapid deployment force. There can be little argument that such an enhancement is needed, and sooner rather than later. Britain must be capable of deploying forces in support of United Nations-sponsored operations and humanitarian missions.

I am somewhat perplexed by the knots into which the Government seem to have tied themselves on the issue. Are we, for example, to participate with the French and Germans on the Antonov-70 aircraft, or are we to procure the Boeing McDonnell Douglas C-17s? Will the Government find the money—the £600 million—that is required as a deposit for development of the future large aircraft under the single phase commercial approach? If so, which defence programmes will the Government cancel to find it? I dare say that the Minister will say, "Wait for the defence review," but this is a sector where damage is being done to the British procurement industry.

Given all the uncertainties, how will the Government ensure that adequate levels of airlift, strategic and tactical, and sealift will be introduced into the inventory within a reasonable time frame? Will the Minister reassure the House that the pressing need for additional airlift will not become mired in European industrial rationalisation? That has been an eye opener.

On 9 December, the MOD and the Department of Trade and Industry issued a joint press notice, as the Minister will recall. It started by saying:

The UK, France and Germany joined forces today to issue a challenge to their aerospace and defence electronics industries to restructure to compete in world markets. They were given until the end of March. On 27 March, a joint press notice from the DTI and the MOD said:

The government has received the response from the Airbus partners. The President of the Board of Trade, Margaret Beckett and Defence Secretary George Robertson, who presented the 9 December statement on behalf of the UK, welcomed the joint report and the wide measure of agreement that has been reached between the partners. On 20 April, we again read in an MOD press release:

The Ministers welcomed the response from aerospace and defence electronics companies to the call last December by the leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom to draw up restructuring plans. They encouraged industry to focus on the goals and means of restructuring, and to keep up momentum. But, oh dear, on 1 April Mr. Kevin Smith of British Aerospace told the House of Commons Defence Committee, when asked why aerospace and defence companies were dragging their heels in industrial consolidation and submitting a response that was "short on detail", that it was

to protect the competitiveness of not only aerospace, but all UK industry. He said that the prime concern of a European consolidated company must be clear shareholder-driven values and he was "not sure" that the French Government were committed to such a goal. He said that we

can't be definite on Airbus reconstruction because of concerns about the French Government's ideas on their ownership role. Then, on 15 April, we read in Jane's Defence Weekly that Mr. John Weston, chief executive officer of British Aerospace, had said:

The proposed European Aerospace and Defence Company, or Euroco, must be positioned as a wholly independent public company if it is to work in the global marketplace. The French government's insistence on retaining a share in the merged company for the foreseeable future presents significant difficulties. The article continued:

Weston's stance came a week after the French government had insisted on state-ownership and the Spanish government demanded private ownership. Weston said that BAe is completely opposed to the French notion of creeping consolidation, which will, he believes, destroy plans for Euroco. I hope that Ministers will be extremely realistic about that. I understand the great difficulties therein, but it is a matter of grave concern to our procurement companies that this seems to be going wrong, so let us cut the buoyant press releases and do some sorting out in Europe—an area where the Government are supposed to be so well received.

I warmly welcome the Minister's announcement, made very quietly this afternoon, about the future arrangements for the in-house deep repair of aircraft. That was sensible and we certainly support it, but I am a little concerned about the implications for jobs, particularly at Almondbank, a remarkable establishment that I visited with members of the Defence Committee a couple of years ago. Will the announcement mean that that facility will remain at Almondbank, or does it imply a relocation?

We were a little disappointed, to say the least, by the Government's paper on the Defence Diversification Agency. There were no surprises about swords into ploughshares and there was little that was new. There was well-deserved recognition of the success of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency and its partners, but all the difficult bits of the DDA were kicked into touch and left to the strategic defence review, so we are looking forward to what Ministers have to say about the tricky bits of the DDA and about DERA's future.

I recall a very early meeting at the start of all the business of contractorisation when the then Minister briefed me about contractorisation at Boscombe Down, which was where it all started. It has had it for a long time. It has been named and renamed—probably re-branded in current parlance—but DERA's future is crucial.

Industry is concerned that although excellent progress has been made on procurement and restructuring, there has been less movement on research and technology in general and on DERA's future in particular. It is concerned about the overall trend in defence research and technology, including dual-use activity and the way in which DERA operates.

The first point that industry is concerned about is that DERA must be responsible for maintaining an impartial source of expert advice to the MOD. That role is fundamental in implementing smart procurement, because the new procedures emerging from the MOD procurement executive and industry consultations depend on the MOD's being able to make informed judgments on technical issues.

In addition to supporting the MOD's intelligent customer capabilities, DERA's status as a Government organisation is crucial in maintaining access to material from other Governments, particularly the United States. Any dilution of that status through privatisation or other means would pose a direct threat to that function.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Is my hon. Friend aware that it is because of DERA's status as a Government agency that foreign Governments are happy to place contracts with it? That earns foreign exchange and enables us to tap into technology that other Governments would not make available to us and would not show us if they felt that there was a risk of seepage, which in a Government agency will, I hope, not happen.

Mr. Key

My hon. Friend is spot on. I recognise his expertise as the Member of Parliament for Aldershot, which includes the DERA headquarters. Any dilution of that status poses a threat to that function. There must also remain a clear line of ministerial responsibility and accountability for fundamental security and procurement interests. I think, for example, of the work of the chemical and biological defence division at Porton Down.

Irrespective of the SDR's outcome, the market will not develop or maintain some capabilities that are essential to the UK's defence. That activity will surely remain one of DERA's core functions. It will also be linked to smart procurement because the applied research in that sector will reduce the risks and hence the costs of new programmes. The investment in DERA's technology base is a vital part of the ability of both the MOD and the defence industry to contribute to the UK's defence. Substitution for reduced spending in this area would be difficult for the private sector, and careful thought needs to be given to all the consequences of reduced funding.

The industry would like to encourage a joint effort with the Ministry of Defence and DERA to move matters forward, building on the consultative mechanisms created to design and implement the smart procurement initiative.

I was glad to hear the Minister make such splendid comments about the Reservists, which I entirely endorse. It is crucial that we retain and promote the interests of Reservists in whatever force—the RAF, the Royal Navy or the Army.

I conclude on a theme around which we can surely all unite. People are the heart of our military capability. They are, and must remain, the highest priority. RAF personnel are expensive to train but we must never forget that people are the only asset that grows in value with the passage of time. Above all, creative, innovative and well-motivated people who are proud of their job and who are professionally and personally fulfilled are the foundation for the success of tomorrow's Royal Air Force.

5.51 pm
Mr. Jamie Cann (Ipswich)

I want to follow the comments of the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). It is true that the days of RAF, Navy and Army debates, in the days of jointery, are now gone. We should look at doing things in a different way. I recognise what the hon. Member for Salisbury said about the forces being overstretched. In 1996, I spent a year on the armed forces scheme with the Royal Navy. It was clear, particularly on the frigates, that people were not getting home to their families in the way that they should. I was told that the same was true for the Air Force and the Army.

My father worked on Lancasters, Wellingtons and Hampdens in the second world war. I am a member of my local Royal Air Force Association club. I have a great deal of time for the RAF and if I did not, my dad would not have a lot of time for me. Anything I say now about the RAF is not being critical of its existence. I want to discuss where it is going in the future.

We must look at this historically. The Navy has been with us for about 800 years and we have had the Army for about 300 or 400 years, certainly from the time of Cromwell. The RAF is relatively new, lodged in a slot between the Army and the Navy. It was essentially set up after the first world war, in the days when we thought about air, land and sea—RAF, Army and Navy. In today's world, that is not necessarily how we should be thinking.

Twenty years ago, the Army was essentially the British Army of the Rhine in Germany and the troops in Northern Ireland, as ever. The Navy focused on the Iceland-Faroes gap and anti-submarine warfare. The RAF was concerned with home defence. All those things have changed. In many ways, 25 years ago the RAF was the pre-eminent force. It was home defence and the main nuclear deterrent force. That has gone.

There is no longer a cold war, so we have no real need for huge numbers of jet aircraft for home defence. We have no real need for the RAF in Germany, but we have increased needs for a projection of air power overseas. What we are seeing increasingly—I hope that the strategic defence review deals with this—is the birth of British power projection as carrier battle groups, with the capacity to put a brigade ashore and keep it going for as long as necessary, with all the air cover it requires.

I am not sure that the RAF will be able to do that with its current focus. We are in danger of the RAF being marginalised. The Army Air Corps is increasingly looking after the needs of troops on the ground. The carrier battle groups—essentially the Royal Navy air service—is looking after the fleet.

What should the RAF focus on? There is coastal command, air-sea rescue, the airborne warning and communication system, and things of that sort. Despite that, it is becoming increasingly marginalised. We need to consider whether it should be refocused. Nobody is saying that we should get rid of it, but it needs to be refocused for current conditions.

The RAF should be looking at bringing the strategic lift under our command, so that we are not dependent on the Americans as we are now. That is where we are lacking strategically. That should be one of the RAF's key roles for the future. I hope that the SDR will look at that.

We should be looking at two types of uniform on carriers. We should look at the joint strike aircraft on carriers, certainly ground attack, being operated to some extent by RAF crews rather than Royal Navy air crews. I know that there are problems with the different modes of command within the two organisations, and they would need to be brought together, but we should look at that for the future.

Other hon. Members may know this better than me, but I believe that we started talking about the Eurofighter about 10 years ago.

Mr. Key

It was 1984.

Mr. Cann

What is it for? I am not sure why we are building it, unless it is to import wings from Italy. I am not sure that we really require Eurofighter in the way we thought we did 14 years ago. To be a little bit critical—

Mr. Frank Cook

Will my hon. Friend countenance the argument that we need the Eurofighter in case we need the Eurofighter?

Mr. Cann

Yes, certainly. However, why we cut perfectly good Phantoms into pieces and sold them for scrap instead of mothballing them is beyond me. That is the way of the world. I am not sure that, essentially, we need Eurofighter. I am not sure what it is designed to fight in the wars we are envisaging.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I thought for a moment that the hon. Gentleman might be taking advice from my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark). If the hon. Gentleman does not understand the basic requirement for an air superiority fighter, he does not understand the need for the Royal Air Force.

One of the RAF's key purposes is to provide air superiority. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that other air forces have invested substantial amounts of money in developing fighter aircraft, and that the only way to compete with them is with something of the type and capability of Eurofighter? In its class, it is a first-class aircraft.

Mr. Alan Clark


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must be allowed to answer one intervention before taking another.

Mr. Cann

All I am saying is that we are in danger of falling between two stools. We have the joint strike aircraft, which is being developed with the Americans and we have Eurofighter, but we do not have the capacity to put many of those machines in the air in any case. We have gone adrift in our strategic thinking.

Mr. Alan Clark

I apologise for trying to encapsulate the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), and I do so with the greatest diffidence, because the expression that I am about to use is of monumental political incorrectness. However, I ask the indulgence of the House because I am quoting a remark made by the Lord Amery, the former right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, who is, sadly, now deceased. I heard him say in this Chamber some 18 years ago that we live in an age "when wogs have MiGs".

Mr. Cann

I would not dream of commenting on that remark; perhaps it is appropriate to move on.

I know that manpower in the RAF has been significantly reduced. Some years ago, I heard that it took the Israeli air force one person to get an aircraft into the air, while it took our Air Force eight people, so the Israeli air force's ratio of person to punch was much greater. I understand that the situation has improved, but I am not at all sure that it has improved sufficiently, especially given that we use the RAF less than the other two services. I shall be interested to learn what the SDR has to say about that.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; I am sure that it improves our debates to have this sort of to-ing and fro-ing. I understand that Mr. David Hart has to some extent recanted the line that he developed and the hon. Gentleman was advancing. I think that it is somewhat out of date. The reason for Mr. Hart's recantation is that the Israeli air force does not have an international force projection requirement. It is simply the air defence force of the state of Israel. [Interruption].

Mr. Cann

Does the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) want to have a go while we're at it?

Mr. Menzies Campbell

indicated dissent.

Mr. Cann

As I understand it, the Israeli air force is very efficient at what it does, and it can do it elsewhere, just as the RAF does when it moves around the world, so I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point. I was certainly not quoting someone called Hart, as I understand he belongs to a Conservative think tank.

The RAF has a wonderful history, and has done a great deal for this country. We need to consider seriously what it should be doing in the next 20 to 30 years, and I am not sure that, as a country, we have done that.

6.2 pm

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

The first half of the final sentence in the speech made by the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) is entirely correct: we have to reach some conclusion about what the Royal Air Force will do in the coming 20 to 30 years. The decisions made in the strategic defence review will almost certainly be those which shape its future, and even if the present Government were to be replaced at the next election or were radically to change their policy, those decisions will be so fundamental and far-reaching that they will probably not be able to be changed. In that sense, the hon. Gentleman is correct.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said that he thought the timing of this debate was rather curious, because we were after the time of influence and before the time of decision. I suspect that that is exactly why this time has been chosen. We are in a vacuum, which explains why much of what he had to say was in the form of questions. Alas, much of what I have to say will be in the same form. I do not believe that my questions will be answered this evening, but I hope that they will be answered by the time the far-reaching conclusions of the defence review are made public.

I have some sympathy for the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who has now left the Chamber, who thought that the Hercules aircraft had taken part in the Berlin airlift. He might have thought that because he has recently travelled in one, and those aircraft certainly have the appearance of having been around since the Berlin airlift. If ever there was a need for a replacement, it is for the Hercules.

However, I shall say more later about the C130J, which has not exactly been a paradigm of good procurement. Hon. Members who have flown as passengers in the Hercules will know that even the simple act of going to the loo involved some anxiety, because of the corrosion in that part of the aircraft.

I should properly begin with an apology, because, as a result of a prior commitment this evening, I will not be present for the winding-up speeches. I have apologised to the Minister and to the hon. Member for Salisbury. [HON. MEMBERS: "Are you going to the Labour fund-raising dinner, too?"] I cannot afford the price of a ticket. It appears that the Minister cannot, either; perhaps he is too much of a plain speaker for that no doubt rather gilded occasion.

The qualifications which I claim enable me to contribute to this debate are, first, that I am my party's spokesman; secondly, that, like the hon. Member for Ipswich, I am a member of the Select Committee on Defence; and thirdly, that I have the great advantage of having a very strong constituency interest, because RAF Leuchars is based in my constituency. That allows me to associate myself very strongly, if I may, with the Minister's observations about mountain rescue. The RAF Leuchars mountain rescue team, which is situated just on the edge of the Cairngorms, is frequently in operation and is a credit to the RAF, precisely as the Minister described.

As we have acknowledged today, the fundamental strategic defence review decisions are not known, so they cannot inform our debate. However, in addition to the seminars, to which some of us have had invitations, and the public sessions, one feature of the defence review that is rather different from that carried out sub rosa—if I can put it that way—by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) when he was at the Ministry of Defence, is that there has been a remarkable amount of speculation in the newspapers.

The Minister dismisses that as "mere" speculation, but I pause to observe that, if some of the information about the Territorial Army that has appeared in the past week is speculation, it is the most detailed speculation of all time. That gives rise to the view, with some justification, that there is a certain amount of inter-service briefing. I hope that the ultimate conclusions of the review are not unduly influenced by what looks on the face of it like competition for available resources.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

The hon. and learned Gentleman is making an interesting point. Does he agree that, the longer the SDR is delayed, the greater the chance that the bad news will be leaked deliberately? Any good news will not be leaked, so might not the services be jeopardised by the delay?

Mr. Campbell

I am with the Minister on that point. As I said, the decisions announced in July will shape the defence of the United Kingdom for the next 20 years, and will have consequences that are unlikely to be easily unravelled. On that basis, I tend to the view that the review should take as long as is necessary to get it right, and it should not be pushed.

I deal now with an issue that might in some circumstances be considered parochial, but which I think has considerable political significance. It concerns the role of the Air Officer Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is important that, in the SDR, the level of senior service representation in Scotland is not changed. As we know, defence is not a responsibility that is to be devolved to the Parliament in Edinburgh.

It would be quite wrong to downgrade, by rank, status or responsibility, the office of the Air Officer Scotland and Northern Ireland, because the representational duties in Scotland, which are carried out by the RAF, the Royal Navy and the Army, are extremely important in presenting the public face of the services. They are important not just for themselves, but because, at a time of constitutional change—which I support, and for which I have been something of an advocate—they underline the fact that we are having home rule within the United Kingdom and within a parliamentary system which embraces Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and that responsibility for defence remains a UK responsibility.

"Sending the wrong signal" is a much-overworked cliché, but it can be used in a defence debate without too much criticism. It would be sending the wrong signal if there were any downgrading of the seniority of the senior representative officers of all three armed services.

I see that the Scottish National party Bench is empty. I have racked my memory, and perhaps the Minister could assist me. In the past 10 years, there have been perhaps 30 or 40 occasions in the House to discuss defence. I cannot remember a single occasion when the Scottish National party contributed by way of a speech. Indeed, I can hardly remember any questions being asked about defence from a party which says, "We must have independence so that we can have a Scottish navy, a Scottish air force and a Scottish army."

If Scottish National party Members have such enthusiasm for defence, one would think that they would occasionally participate in these discussions, which are bound to have consequences if they ever achieve their highly unlikely political objectives. The decisions taken here would have some effect on what they were able to do in Scotland in that regard.

Dr. Reid

I was challenged to rack my brains, and I have done so. The hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right. I cannot remember any occasion when Scottish National party Members have been here to contribute to these debates. I would not mind that, except that the party—as the hon. and learned Gentleman knows—parades up and down Scotland, telling people that it is prepared to defend this regiment, that battalion or this company of the Territorial Army. In the hon. and learned Gentleman's area, the Scottish National party has no legitimacy whatever to do this when compared with his own record.

Mr. Campbell

I am grateful for the Minister's felicitous reference to myself. One of the great claims for a Scottish defence identity—if one can call it that—is that we would be able to preserve regiments such as the Black Watch and the Royal Highland Fusiliers, and the Scottish National party would stand four square in their defence. The party's defence would be more effective if its members came here from time to time to contribute.

Everyone who has spoken in the debate so far—and those who will speak later—will acknowledge that the RAF has come through a period of rapid, and occasionally painful, change. Manpower has been almost halved in the past 10 years. It is no secret that morale has been fragile, and, on the basis of some of the anecdotal evidence of this afternoon, that fragility is still present to some extent.

From my experience, I believe that something of a recovery is under way. That is related to the quality of operational activity which the RAF has been required to undertake. For example, the air campaign before the deployment of NATO forces in Bosnia helped to restore morale. Although the length of the deployment on Invincible, in particular, caused some difficulty for families, nothing is better for the restoration of morale than asking the RAF to do a serious job.

There are some signs that morale has improved. It would be right if the uncertainty which a review necessarily involves could be eliminated, and some clear guidelines would assist in the process of recovery.

One thing seems to be absolutely essential. If the expeditionary strategy hinted at in the speculation—as the Minister would describe it—prevails, we shall require a well equipped and well motivated RAF in a strategic role, and not in the support role which has been suggested from time to time. The RAF may have given up its partial responsibility for carrying the nuclear deterrent, but its strategic significance remains as important today as it has ever been.

Mr. Keith Simpson

I do not know whether it was a slip of the tongue, but the hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the publication of the defence White Paper in July. Does he have inside information as a consequence of the joint working committee between Labour and the Liberal Democrats that the rest of the House does not have?

Mr. Campbell

No—I only wish I did. I was proceeding upon the assumption, which I think is generally accepted—

Mr. Alan Clark

It will be published just before the summer recess.

Mr. Campbell

The right hon. Gentleman takes the words right out of my mouth. We will be packing our suitcases and getting out our buckets and spades to go off on holiday, and the White Paper will be published. That will have consequences not just for members of the Select Committee, but for Ministers.

That redoubtable figure—in more ways than one—the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), has made it clear that he intends to take evidence throughout the month of August, so that it will be possible to inform the House properly for the traditional two-day debate when we return in October. The Minister should not make too many grand plans for foreign travel—he may find that his constituency is as far as he gets in August.

There are a number of fundamental questions. Will the RAF escape what looks like a problem of securing long-term funding for its procurement programme? The Eurofighter is a £16 billion programme which is at a sensitive place in the long-term costings. Will the capability gap which looks as if it may open between the United States air force and the RAF have a consequence for the shape of the air power we are able to deploy?

One thing is certainly true. The cost of the next generation of aircraft—such as the joint strike fighter, to which reference has been made—is likely to be substantially greater than the cost of the immediately previous generation. As the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) said, we must ask how many aircraft the RAF will be able to purchase and operate. Is it inevitable, as some argue, that, with the reduction in the level of threat to the United Kingdom, the RAF will shrink even below its current strength?

Will it be possible to maintain sufficient front-line air crew, faced with the attractions of an undoubtedly expanding commercial airline industry, where the rates of pay and regular hours prove extremely attractive to pilots whose rates of pay may be rather better than they once were, but who—from the point of view of home life—find themselves substantially disadvantaged as a result of operational demands?

That leads me to some of the operational demands which have been discussed. SFOR is the strategic force in Bosnia—the stabilising force, in truth—which follows IFOR, the intervention force. Its mandate expires in June of this year, yet it is clear—as the allies have agreed—that some additional, or follow-on, force will be deployed. There may be implications for the RAF, because it is clear that the United States wishes to take a much lower profile in such a force. The Harriers have returned from Gioia Del Colle, as we have heard, but will a reduced US component in the follow-on force have consequences for the RAF?

We are still policing two air exclusion zones over northern and southern Iraq, seven years after entering into the commitment. How long can that commitment be sustained? What are the consequences for the RAF if it is to be sustained indefinitely? Most immediately, the deployment to the Gulf on Invincible and then Illustrious was succesful, but one must look below some of the headlines. If one talks to people with direct involvement, one finds that there were teething troubles, not least because two quite different cultures were aboard the aircraft carriers.

I understand that there was some reluctance among the RAF engineering support staff, who did not—to put it colloquially—join up to sit in a carrier in the Gulf. They joined up because they thought that they would be stationed on the ground; they did not expect that their lives would change as much as is inevitable on a ship.

There are interesting questions about whether, to avoid a clash of cultures in joint operations on an aircraft carrier, there needs to be joint engineering. To imagine that the differences between two services could ever be entirely eliminated is more than speculative—it is unlikely to be achieved.

The Minister mentioned search and rescue. Indeed, the RAF has made an enormous contribution to civilian rescue—90 per cent. of the missions, I think, are to save civilians. In the communities surrounding RAF Leuchars, we still very much regret, and to some extent resent, the fact that the flight of Wessex helicopters there has long since ceased.

The Minister must recognise that operational requirements such as I have described require fully recruited units. Perhaps he can—at some stage, if not this evening—give more information about those branches of the RAF that were short of personnel in April 1997, such as air traffic control, medicine, the RAF Regiment and telecommunications. An answer to a parliamentary question on 7 April this year made it clear that there were substantial shortages in front-line aircrew for some aircraft. How will those shortages be dealt with?

The hon. Member for Ipswich questioned the need for the Eurofighter. I believe that we need an agile fighter to replace the Tornado F3, which was designed to intercept Russian bombers over the North sea. The Eurofighter is designed to compete against the SU27 and its derivatives, which are available from the Russian manufacturers at prices that cannot be anything more than cost—they may be rather less—so that production lines are kept going.

The likelihood of RAF pilots—men, and women in the future—flying against an aircraft of that quality is high, as it is exported almost without consideration; so I firmly believe that Eurofighter will be an essential part of the RAF's armoury. Formal production contracts are due to be signed in June—when they are, those who have supported the project in the House and elsewhere will heave a collective sigh of relief.

There are two clouds on this otherwise air force blue horizon. First, as part of the unfounded speculation to which the Minister referred, it is rumoured that the number of orders for Eurofighters may be reduced—we shall have to wait and see whether that is in the White Paper. Secondly, it is suggested that, if there is a change of Government in Germany in September, the incoming SPD may want to reduce the numbers—I think that it is committed to 180. If that happens, there could be consequences for the work-share arrangements, which, as hon. Members will remember, were the source of considerable difficulties, requiring careful and sometimes brutal negotiation.

The first Eurofighter production aircraft is scheduled to fly in August 2001. The more significant question is when the Eurofighter will be in service—which means, in the RAF's definition, available and supportable in sufficient quantities to provide the desired effect. That is the critical date to which we should turn our attention.

There has been some discussion about whether we should purchase more than 232 Eurofighter aircraft to replace the Harrier GR7—there is even talk about a maritime version. The theory that we should have only Eurofighters and Tornado GR4s has some advantages, as that could produce economies. However, by confining ourselves to those two aircraft, would we have the range of capability sufficient for our purpose?

There is a further concern about the future offensive air system, which raises questions similar to those about the joint strike fighter. We should remember that the United States may buy 3,000 joint strike fighters, whereas the United Kingdom may buy 100. Such a contract would make us very dependent, so our commitment to the JSF has political, as well as military, implications.

Mention has been made of heavy lift. As I said, our experience of the C 130J has hardly been attractive. We could opt for the C17, which has the advantage that it is already available, proven and in service. However, it is twice the predicted price of the future large aircraft. To go down that route would necessarily mean that we were abandoning a capability; it would also have industrial repercussions, even if the decision were taken for military reasons.

ASTOR—airborne stand-off radar—is another procurement issue. It is a £750 million project that would provide British forces with much enhanced intelligence gathering. As some will know, there are three possible bidders: Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and—a late entrant to the competition—Northrop Grumman.

Members of Parliament are often lobbied about such projects, and I am always slightly apprehensive about that. Without access to all the classified information, commercial in-confidence information and Ministry of Defence specialist advice connected with a bid, all of us who do not sit on the Treasury Front Bench are at a disadvantage. We should deceive ourselves and the House if we said that, on the basis of information in the public domain, we were qualified to make serious technical judgments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) has taken a particular interest in ASTOR and the Lockheed Martin bid—Lockheed is an important employer in his constituency. He is absent today, as he is on parliamentary business, but I undertook to convey his strong belief that the Lockheed bid should be preferred.

The hon. Member for Salisbury referred to the Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre. I do not want to reopen the arguments between the Minister and me that took place in a public forum when he gave evidence to the Select Committee on Defence. I suspect that he has not changed his mind; indeed, I have not changed mine.

I simply do not believe that the available evidence—when viewed against the high standard of proof that the relevant RAF regulations require—justifies the conclusion that the pilots were negligent. As the hon. Member for Salisbury said, hon. Members from all parties, of which I am one—my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), who could not be here this evening, authorised me to mention his name in this context—genuinely feel that an injustice has been done.

Suggestions have flown around that those of us who have an interest in this matter and have reached the conclusion I mentioned are somehow challenging the integrity of those who found that there had been negligence. I can speak only for myself, but I say unequivocally that I do not for a moment doubt the integrity of those who were involved in what was undoubtedly an extremely difficult decision. I have a genuine intellectual disagreement with their decision, but I do not in any sense challenge their honesty, any more than they seek to challenge mine, or indeed that of the hon. Member for Salisbury.

Mr. Key

May I put on record my unequivocal agreement with what the hon. and learned Gentleman has just said?

Mr. Campbell

When we discuss procurement, industrial issues can never be far away. There was a joint report in the previous Parliament from the Select Committees on Defence and on Trade and Industry about the significance of Britain's industrial defence base when measured against procurement decisions.

The then Secretary of State, Mr. Michael Portillo, accepted the report's conclusions, and I would be surprised if the present Government did not take the attitude that, when important procurement decisions are being taken, regard must be had to the industrial consequences for our economy if manufacturers and suppliers other than those based in the United Kingdom are preferred. I hope for an assurance to that effect.

In that context, one cannot ignore the events of the past week or so. Westland has agreed to form a consortium with Agusta, creating the largest helicopter manufacturing enterprise in Europe, of a size and quality to rival those in the United States. Alongside the battlefield taxi decision that was taken yesterday, that is a sign of things to come.

Unless United Kingdom, and especially European, defence manufacturers integrate in the manner of those examples, the risk is that our companies will become mere subcontractors of United States defence companies. That would be bad for our industry, our defence and our political influence. I strongly believe that the integration of the European defence industry is the only way in which we can preserve in Europe a defence industrial base of sufficient quality and quantity.

There have been some political declarations on the subject—the hon. Member for Salisbury mentioned the one made in December 1997, and another was made on 20 April this year by the Defence Ministers of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Spain—but declarations are not enough: action is required.

As one who believes in the evolution of a European security and defence identity rather more strongly than some others in the Chamber, I believe that industrial integration of the kind that is necessary for survival will have substantial consequences for common procurement, and that that in itself will drive the move towards far more defence integration on the continent of Europe.

Mr. Blunt


Mr. Campbell

I have just about finished, and other hon. Members are waiting to speak. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Royal Air Force, like the other services, will await the strategic defence review White Paper with understandable anxiety—if not with quite the apprehension with which the citizens of Atlanta awaited the arrival of General Sherman—because of the uncertainty. I hope that, when we next discuss the Royal Air Force, many of the issues will be much clearer than they are today.

6.33 pm
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

I am delighted to follow the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), because it gives me the chance to thank him for a most informative speech.

I take this opportunity to speak up for the unsung heroes of RAF Stafford, which is the only supplies and distribution centre for the Royal Air Force in the whole of the United Kingdom since the closures a few years ago of Carlisle and Quedgeley. Consequently, billions of pounds of equipment is stored at or passes through the base every year. Mind you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have a word of advice for you or for any hon. Member who may rush to Stafford to seek out the RAF base: do not look for the runway; there is no runway, as the transport is all by helicopter or road.

I was one of the many right hon. and hon. Members who attended the presentation in the Palace by the RAF. I was impressed by the number who attended and by the quality of the presentation, which included a film showing all the many and varied talents of the RAF: fighter planes, vertical take-off and landing planes, helicopters and even cooks featured in the film. I did not notice any mention of RAF Stafford, and it is my great pleasure to make good that omission today.

The RAF handed us a booklet to take away, and I searched for references to RAF Stafford. The one such reference was to the mountain rescue service that the base provides. That vital life-saving service has rightly received tributes from hon. Members of all parties. Another word of advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker: when you come to Stafford, do not bring your skis; there are no mountains in Stafford, and the service is provided most commonly in north Wales.

The main business of RAF Stafford is the storage and distribution of supplies. It is a huge operation. I have been deeply impressed by the very size of the operation.

Mr. Blunt

The hon. Gentleman is rightly proud of the RAF station in his constituency. Will he consider whether its functions might in due course be better carried out on a defence logistics basis? Perhaps, following "Front Line First", we should view RAF Stafford on that basis, as part of the drive towards the most efficient way of running the Ministry of Defence with the maximum co-ordination.

Mr. Kidney

If it helps the hon. Gentleman, I will deal later in my speech with the qualities of the personnel and with the co-operation between services in our armed forces. I ask him to be a little patient, and I will get to that point.

I recently visited the Argos distribution centre in my constituency. It is a brand new, modern private enterprise, and it is very impressive indeed. My compliment to the staff at RAF Stafford is to say that their operation is carried out as efficiently as that at Argos, with the difference that RAF Stafford's operation is much, much bigger.

The tactical support wing is based at Stafford. I am surprised that it has not been mentioned before in this debate, because it is a fantastic and vital service, ensuring that fuel and other supplies reach the front line before our services. An army may march on its stomach, but in the modern war zone armed forces do not get very far without rapid resupply of fuel for their aircraft, tanks and personnel carriers.

The tactical support wing is an illustration of co-operation between services. In the Gulf war, which is the last time that I can think of when the TSW's presence was vital, the armed services, both in the air and on the ground, had good reason to be grateful. At present, the TSW is permanently based in Northern Ireland, and it has a presence in Bosnia.

In addition to those vital services, there is the little known presence of several trade services at RAF Stafford, including engineering and carpentry. There is a modern engineering scientific laboratory service. All those services are capable of forming go-ahead, public-private partnerships. There is certainly willingness among the people based there to enter into such arrangements. Sometimes the obstacle is the rules that apply to the armed forces.

I can give a reasonably recent example of them getting in the way of modern arrangements. About two years ago, there was an opportunity for RAF Stafford and a private fleet vehicle hire company to make a private, commercial arrangement for the servicing of vehicles by RAF Stafford personnel. It was not allowed by the rules that were then applied by the MOD.

That example brings me to the people who work at RAF Stafford. Service personnel and civilians work alongside each other collaboratively. Industrial relations are first class. Everyone shares the same values of high quality, customer service and enterprise. It is no wonder that the organisation is so effective when the people who work there are so clearly valued by those who manage it.

Like everyone else, those stationed at RAF Stafford are anxious about the outcome of the strategic defence review. Its secure status as the only remaining supplies and distribution centre for the RAF may be an illusion. There has been much talk of tri-service working or jointery. Further modern developments in the services of the armed forces hold no fears for RAF personnel. If asked to service more sectors of the armed forces, they will deliver in style. The industrial relations, the modern organisation and the facilities on site all demonstrate that such services will be safe in their hands. Defence Ministers need only to ask, and they will respond magnificently.

6.41 pm
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

We have had an informed and good-humoured debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) noted that this debate is something of a stocking filler. It is held at the Government's convenience. It is an opportunity that Labour Members attending the social function elsewhere are sadly missing. I am sure that members of the Royal Air Force will take note.

Various matters have been raised and I wish to deal with two main ones. The first was mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury and commented on by the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann). The Government should consider changing the format of these debates. Ten years ago, Lord Younger of Leckie, when he was Secretary of State for Defence, put it to the Opposition, other parties and Government Back Benchers that we might consider doing away with the three single service debates and having two functional debates, one on the armed forces dealing with personnel and policy and the other on procurement and equipment. I endorsed that, but it was rejected because some hon. Members felt that the single service debates enabled them to raise single service constituency issues. However, we have moved beyond that. In this debate, many of the issues have cut across single service boundaries. I urge Ministers to consider the matter.

The second point is the question of what the Royal Air Force is for. The Minister of State talked about press speculation that we might be considering abolishing the Royal Air Force. All hon. Members present tonight would oppose that, with the concurrent conclusion that the RAF's current roles would be taken over by the Army and Royal Navy. The purpose of the RAF must ultimately be to achieve air supremacy in terms of its operational level and defence of the United Kingdom and to provide air support for the Royal Navy and the Army.

Hon. Members will probably agree that the idea that air power alone is a war winner or can always deter aggression is an over-simplification. I and many other hon. Members have concluded that we must get the balance between the Army, the RAF and the Navy correct in the strategic defence review. One problem in this debate is that we must bear in mind the balance of personnel, equipment and policy in relation to the Army and Royal Navy, which I hope that we will debate soon.

This debate is being held in a vacuum because, despite the Government's attempt to give the impression that they have been open and have consulted, the consultation has been based on the phrase, "We hear what you say." It is almost impossible to establish the baselines of the strategic defence review and so to discuss in an informed way crucial issues of RAF policy, organisation, personnel and equipment. I want briefly to consider some of those issues and ask Ministers some questions in the light of the strategic defence review.

I was fortunate to have an Adjournment debate on the strategic defence review a month ago. I again remind the House that the SDR has not started off from first principles as the Government claimed. Labour's priorities at the general election did not mention defence, so in any consideration of defence or, indeed, public expenditure, we must recognise that defence is not a major priority. We understand from everything that Ministers have hinted that the overall defence budget will remain at about £21 billion, at best. The defence review will not honestly examine our commitments and capabilities because if it did, it might conclude that we need to spend more on defence, but that has been ruled out. The SDR is determined by budgetary constraints, for the simple reason that the defence review is part of the comprehensive spending review.

The Minister of State was flippant about our not needing to worry about the foreign policy baseline, but that is the most crucial basis of the SDR. Why has it not been published? Time and again, hon. Members have asked for it to be revealed to them. This is not some academic debating point, but crucial to understanding the shape and size of the RAF and the equipment that it needs. We do not know what the commitments of the United Kingdom Government are. In the most friendly way, I issue a challenge to the Government in their reply to say what the foreign policy baseline is. If they do not, I assure them that the men and women of the RAF, who take a great interest in policy, will conclude that the baseline is highly flexible. If the Government's eventual decision on the SDR means that there is not sufficient money, the baseline will have to be moved.

The Minister was again flippant about my intervention about a Ministry of Defence mission statement. I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will be fascinated to know how flippant he was. After all, the Foreign Secretary insisted on issuing a mission statement for the Foreign Office within a fortnight of taking office. He made the point that any Government Department was effectively a large business and that it was the duty of the Government to come up with a mission statement. By heavens, if the Ministry of Defence is not a large business, I do not know what is. Surely, if the armed forces have to come up with mission statements—simple statements of aims and objectives—why cannot Ministers? I should be grateful to hear whether Ministers are any closer to coming out with a mission statement.

Like many hon. Members, a few weeks ago I attended in my constituency 80th anniversary celebrations of the formation of the RAF. Many hon. Members have commented on the contribution that the RAF has made, not only to the history of our country but to our independence. It is important to re-emphasise that we are dependent for our ultimate independence on the training, morale, equipment and motivation of our armed forces. I know that defence is not a priority to the Government or to our constituents. Many hon. Members are only too well aware that this is the first time for probably more than 100 years that our homes in the United Kingdom have not been under a direct threat. When people are not under a direct threat, it is easy for them to consider that defence is of marginal importance.

If we reduce the capability and strength of the RAF, it will be extremely difficult to rebuild it if we face a major crisis in the next decade. It is no good the Ministry of Defence working on the assumption that it would get a two-year warning. As an historian, I cannot think of an example in which the British Government have had a two-year warning or been able to act on one. The 1930s are a classic example of that.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

I intervene with some trepidation as the hon. Gentleman is an historian, but there are two more contemporary instances that he might bear in mind. The first is the Falklands and the second is the Gulf, neither of which appeared anywhere in the threat assessment.

Mr. Simpson

The hon. and learned Gentleman is correct. The Chief of the General Staff at the time of "Options for Change", on which a statement was made in the House in the last week of July 1989, said that printed at the front of the statement should be a comment that many of the conclusions about possible threats should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

The Minister and other hon. Members have pointed out that a crucial element in considering defence policy is joint service effort. That is difficult to consider in a single service debate, but we do not argue in the House that there should not be a single Royal Air Force. Nor do we argue that we should produce joint armed forces rather as the Canadians did some 20 years ago. They recognised that that failed in terms of operational effectiveness and the unique morale requirements of each of the services.

I should like to bring to the attention of Ministers the crucial link between the RAF and the UK aerospace industry. The industry provides world-class equipment, and in many respects the RAF is its showcase customer. I do not have to tell the House what that means in terms of jobs and British industry. The military side of UK aerospace is 50 to 55 per cent. of turnover, and air systems constitute £3.4 billion out of the £8.9 billion of the Ministry of Defence equipment budget. In anyone's terms, that is large-scale business.

Let me now consider the RAF in the context of the strategic defence review. The one big idea that is likely to come out of the SDR—it will be confirmed in June or July when the SDR is published—is the configuration of our armed forces for an expeditionary force capability. In other words, we shall go into serious force projection. Apart from the structural, equipment and personnel aspects tied up with the complex business of such a configuration, I am sure that all hon. Members recognise that it will be very expensive. Given the financial constraints under which the Minister is placed by the Government's determination to accept the previous Government's public expenditure proposals and by the comprehensive spending review, I am not convinced that he will find in the short or medium term the savings necessary to fund the full capabilities required for an expeditionary force capability.

Power projection obviously implies operating over long distances. There is a requirement for mobile air, land and sea platforms. There is the tremendous problem of sustainability. There is the requirement for sophisticated and robust weapons systems. One can add to that the requirement for joint and multinational capability. Those are phrases that easily flow off the tongue, but I know that the Minister realises, as do the armed forces, that they create major structural problems and problems of cost and priorities.

What is the wish list for Ministry of Defence planners and specifically the RAF for the operation of an expeditionary force capability? I shall take just some of them, because hon. Members have mentioned a number. They include Eurofighter and the BVRAAM—beyond visual range air-to-air missile. We have a requirement for a Tornado mid-life update. We have the possibility of a future offensive air system to replace the Tornado GR4.

One of the most difficult decisions of all, which hon. Members have touched on, is airlift capability—whether we go for a future large aircraft or a C17.

I have not mentioned all the items on the wish list. I have not tried to put a price tag on each one, but we know only too well that Eurofighter alone will cost about £16 billion. I suspect that the package that I have talked about will cost about £30 billion to £40 billion. I genuinely recognise that the Minister has a problem if he is to fund that out of savings from a budget of £21 billion, even over the lifetime of a Parliament.

So what we shall look for when the SDR is published is not only the outline of an expeditionary force capability but the price tags attached to the weapons and equipment systems and the Government's priorities. The Minister is only too well aware that this is not an academic debate. As the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) said, we might face a crisis in two or three years—even one of a regional nature that would require us to send our expeditionary force capability without many of the key systems that the RAF argues are required. We are unable to discuss that in a wider strategic sense, because we do not know what the foreign policy baseline is.

All this has a major impact on personnel. If we go for an expeditionary force capability, it is likely that the men and women of our armed forces will have to spend more time abroad, away from their loved ones. It will put a greater strain on the social security support system within the armed forces. I fully support hon. Members on both sides of the House who have argued how important that is.

We all argue on behalf of our constituents. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who seems to have gone—[Interruption.] Oh, he is there. I beg his pardon. He is doughnutting a Whip. He is doughnutting two Whips.

The hon. Member for Stafford made a moving speech about a constituency interest, but the Minister is not in the business of buying off our constituency interests. Like other hon. Members, I have some RAF interests in my constituency or bordering it, and much of the informed, or uninformed, debate in the press causes great consternation. Such debate is not only a consequence of leaking by military personnel, because I suspect that there is a little informed leaking by the Secretary of State's special adviser. The footprints of a former defence correspondent of The Financial Times are all over the leaks.

Many of us will search the strategic defence review for a recognition that it is not a once-and-for-all review so that somehow or other defence policy will be put to bed. I suspect that it will be a rolling defence review and that we shall have to examine the small print. We shall also have to examine carefully the time scale for change and for the delivery of equipment. I fear that financial constraints on the defence budget will become worse in the Government's middle term and later, and that there will be major slippage.

Over the past decade, the Royal Air Force has performed magnificently at a time of enormous change, and has responded brilliantly to new operational requirements. I hope that, when the strategic defence review is eventually published, the RAF will see the way ahead in terms of its functions and equipment, and that it will not see the review as the product of new Labour but as an example of old-style Labour defence reviews a la Healey and Mason.

7 pm

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I was pleased by the closing remarks of the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) about the strategic defence review. They were a good deal more sensible and logical than his opening remarks, in which he suggested a Labour party pretence to cover delay. Labour has been calling for a comprehensive defence review for well over 10 years. Some of his colleagues will be able to tell him, if he cares to refer to them, that, when I was an Opposition defence spokesman, I called for that.

Mr. Gray


Mr. Cook

I am intrigued that an inquiry can be made at such an early stage in my speech, but I gladly give way.

Mr. Gray

The hon. Gentleman is talking about Labour's history on defence policy. He will know that, when defence was debated at the 1989 Labour party conference before the general election, the party voted unanimously, or by a large majority, to make huge defence cuts. I think that the amount was £5 billion. Since that time, there have been no defence debates at Labour conferences, because the leadership is afraid that that is precisely what the membership would vote for.

Mr. Cook

First, the hon. Gentleman is incorrect. Secondly, if the hon. Gentleman cares to examine history, he will see that conference decisions have not always determined the policy of the parliamentary Labour party. I am afraid that I have to rebuke the hon. Gentleman for trying to mislead the House on two counts.

Before I was interrupted, I was about to say that a comprehensive defence review would have been ideal at the time of "Options for Change". Anyone who read that with any alertness would have discovered that the only options were cuts. Cuts in defence spending under the previous Government far exceeded the cuts that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk suggests would weaken defence.

Mr. Blunt

I should like to know the correct position on Labour's policy. Labour started to call for a defence review the moment it ceased to have a defence policy. It called for the ending of any strategic deterrent for the United Kingdom and continued to call for cuts in defence expenditure of £5 billion well after "Options for Change" was accepted. That is the post-cold-war reduction that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.

Mr. Cook

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his strenuous efforts to maintain his style of spin doctoring now that he is in the House. It is almost as good as the spin doctoring he engaged in before coming here. The hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) made a much worthier contribution. He gave his usual well-informed, measured and clearly analysed assessment. In the north-east of England and in parts of Scotland, there is a term with about 17 definitions, and it ideally suits the style of the hon. and learned Gentleman. Sadly, he is not in his place to hear my tribute. That term is "canny". The hon. and learned Gentleman always presents a canny case in a canny manner, and we all benefit from his expertise and insight.

I should have started with an apology for arriving late and for missing the beginning of the Minister's speech. I regret that I shall probably have to confine my style and cover a narrower range of issues than usual. That is because I am not as well informed as I used to be, as I no longer serve on the Select Committee on Defence. I should like to comment on three issues. The first deals specifically with the RAF; the second deals with the services in general; and the third will be a closing comment on the strategic defence review.

I express my sincere gratitude to the Minister for the patient way in which he dealt with my inquiries about the Bulldog replacement programme. That topic was aired at some length by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). As I have explained to the Minister, I have several reasons for raising the issue, and I have a particular interest in it, not least because I have flown the machine and been greatly excited by it. As the Minister knows, I am concerned, as he is, about British industry and its export prospects. My comments will largely echo those of the hon. Member for Salisbury.

The Firefly is a competent aircraft, whose rival is much smaller and less capable. It out-performs its German competitor in a range of important respects, and the RAF has been able to take account of that. However, one difficulty in trying to assess it has arisen from the criticism that has been drawn to my attention. I take the opportunity to counteract some of the criticism.

People have said that the Firefly cannot use grass landing strips. That is incorrect; it is ideally suited to land or take off on grass. It has a very wide track and a very rugged oleo-pneumatic landing gear, with excellent damping characteristics; and there are no fairing spats on the wheels, so there is no difficulty with grassland topography.

I have heard it said that the Firefly cannot be certificated to fly over water. That is incorrect. The Firefly was flown regularly in Hong Kong—and it is very difficult to land or take off in Hong Kong without flying over water. The criticism may originate from the possible need to carry a life raft in the luggage area. That is no problem, either. The criticism may refer to the problem with wearing a life jacket when flying. The original cockpit configuration was indeed somewhat restrictive, but, in consultation with the RAF, Slingsby Aviation has increased the width and height of the cockpit, and relocated the console.

I believe that it was said that the canopy was not large enough, and that the RAF anthropometric specification had not been met. Those criticisms have been addressed. Not only has the height of the canopy been increased, but, with RAF agreement, the position of the seat has been lowered. The taller RAF pilot, someone a bit taller than me, perhaps, at 6 ft 1 in-I am not 6 ft 1—in; I mean the potential RAF pilot—would no longer have difficulties of headroom, wearing his helmet, or of leg and knee room, because the console has been adjusted.

I must counter complaints about the canopy. Locking latches have been added to the sides of the canopy, which has not been blown off, but whose sides had been known to lift in some aerobatic manoeuvres. The additional latches have cured the problem.

The following changes have been made to the cockpit configuration. Internal width has been increased. Legroom around the knee to the outside has been increased. Legroom has increased to the reduced forward console. As I said, the canopy frame profile has been modified. Electric flaps have replaced the bulky hand-lever to the cockpit centre control. Wider seats and a cleaner—in design terms—centre console have been added. The engine controls have been modified to account for the RAF' s preferred style of operation. The rudder trim has been electrified. The elevator trims have been electrified, eliminating the need for manual adjustment in original models. Finally, the cable-operated rudder pedal adjustment has been added, for simpler operation. All those changes are evidence of Slingsby's acute eagerness to meet the specification—which it has, in fact, exceeded.

As the Minister well knows, the original Firefly is already in service, on the joint elementary flying training programme. Cranwell has issued enthusiastic, supportive reports about its performance in the training programme. In Slingsby's discussions with the RAF, all the points that I have mentioned have been raised, discussed and understood, and Slingsby has managed to satisfy all the RAF's stated concerns.

It is important that we place on the record the fact that the RAF has expressed to Slingsby some of the Firefly's very real benefits. Notably, the RAF describes it as a strong, rugged, powerful machine, which, despite being powerful, can be throttled back within the required envelope. It says that the Firefly is flexible. It says that it has a military ethos—and I can testify to that, because it has the real, old-fashioned, military-style joystick, not the car-driving style of a conventional civil machine. The RAF says that the Firefly is good for teaching; that it has all the aerobatic capabilities required for manoeuvres; that it is suitable for training; and that it is capable of future development of requirements. So what is the problem?

The problem seems to be that Slingsby has been required to quote on the basis of one standard specification, whereas its German competitor, the Grob, is allowed to quote on a different one. In other words, we are trying to compare apples with pears, which I consider to be unfair. We are not starting with a level playing field—perhaps I should say that we are not starting with the same meteorological forecasts. One aircraft is being asked to fly in entirely different conditions. That is unfortunate.

If Slingsby were permitted to quote on the basis of its downgraded version, which has been in service much longer—the M200 rather than the M260—or on the basis of its T67M mark II, the price differentials would change immediately. The performance characteristics would be somewhat altered, but those two downgraded versions still match the Grob on performance.

Before I entered the House, I was a construction project manager—apart from a few other things, such as grave-digger, Butlins redcoat and barman. Immediately before I entered the House, it was my responsibility, on behalf of the company that engaged me, to negotiate further work. When there were four or five different corporations sharpening their pencils, it was sometimes necessary for the purchaser to have them all on hand, and to walk from one to the other. That was a good way of getting the best bargain, the best offer and the most reliable undertaking.

I know that the Minister has given the Firefly programme his careful attention and not yet taken a decision. Because so many questions about the programme continue to trouble me, I appeal to the Minister to ensure that the equation is fair, and that we strike toward the level playing field that I have been asking for.

The second area to which I draw attention relates to the strategic defence review, about which we have heard much tonight. We have also heard about reserves, but I did not hear a point that I wanted to raise; it may have been aired before I managed to get into the Chamber.

I need not remind the Minister that reserves are important. Just as the Eurofighter is needed in case we need it, reserve capacity and resource is needed in case we must call on it. We never know when it will be needed; indeed, the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife reminded the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk about the conflict in the Gulf, which, like the Falklands war, was unforeseen. We never know when we shall need the reserves—we need them in case we need them.

Quite apart from that, we need reservists to train cadets, and we need cadets to give us recruits to feed the services. Not only do cadets provide us with recruits for the regular Army, but, generally speaking, those who do not become members of the regular forces become much more socially responsible citizens, much better equipped to conform with society's requirements. They also become better servants of the people. Many hon. Members may have been cadets. Indeed, many years ago, in the string and canvas days, I was a member of the Air Training Corps. However, I was daft enough to sign on in the paras, so instead of getting into planes, I was jumping out of them.

I appeal for close attention to be given in the strategic defence review to the need for the reserves and the need to train them and equip them properly. People make comparisons between our reserves and those of our NATO allies, notably the United States of America. There is a difference of light years between the standards on one side of the Atlantic, even with Canada, and on this side of the water.

I am concerned not only about the inter-service rivalry, to which the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife referred, but about the regular-reserve rivalry. We do not have at the top a regular officer of sufficiently senior rank to be able the hold the corner and fight the case, as there is in the US. I appeal to my hon. Friend to consider appointing someone of more senior rank. I am not decrying the work that has done to date: I am saying that we need a voice that is heard in the MOD and within the hierarchy, and the more pips a person has on the shoulder, the more attention he usually gets.

Mr. Gray

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. He will have seen the speculation in the newspapers that, as part of the SDR, there is a proposal to cut the Territorial Army from 53,000 to 40,000 soldiers. It is too early to speculate what may be in the SDR, but if that is the case, will he join us in the No Lobby in voting against it?

Mr. Cook

I must answer the hon. Gentleman not by an evasion, but by what I always tell my Whip, who happens to be sitting not far away, with his feet on the Bench. I am pleased that he is present. My standard response to my regional Whip when he approaches me, which he does from time to time, is that I shall listen to the debate, weigh the arguments and cast my vote according to my judgment at that time. That is not always a welcome response. It has elicited one or two monosyllabic replies, but we are still speaking and we are still comrades, if my hon. Friend allows me to use that term with reference to him in our new climate.

I must answer the hon. Gentleman by saying that I am concerned about the matter. I try to be a man of my word. I shall weigh the arguments at the time, and he will see then.

Mr. Keith Simpson

On the hon. Gentleman's point about the requirement for the reserves to have a senior officer—

Mr. Cook

A more senior officer.

Mr. Simpson

—a more senior officer as their spokesman at the Ministry of Defence, I must declare an interest. The present director of reserve forces and cadets, Brigadier Richard Holmes, who is a Territorial Army officer, is one of my oldest friends and a former colleague. Given his wide experience and his knowledge of, and contacts among, senior officers, most people would argue that, whatever the outcome of the strategic defence review with regard to the reserves, as the first reserve officer he has probably played a more influential part than if he had been some three-star regular officer. I wanted to put that on record.

Mr. Cook

I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman. 1 in no way want to detract from the job that Brigadier Holmes has done. I have the utmost regard, respect and admiration for him, as I have for Brigadier Nick Hepburn, who plays a similar role in the north-east.

My argument is that, in the United States, there is a two-star general with overall responsibility for reserve concerns. If we had a two-star general with the extra brassware on his shoulder—more than a brigadier, although he could have a brigadier as his adviser—the fact that he had the higher rank would give his word heavier weight in any argument. That is a truism. If the hon. Gentleman disagrees with that assessment, we shall have to agree to differ.

Finally, I strongly associate myself with the words of the hon. Member for Salisbury and the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife with reference to the Chinook disaster on the Mull of Kintyre. My questions have never been satisfactorily answered. The inquiry was constrained by the remit that it was given at the time. The matter deserves a fresh airing. None of us can rest easy until then.

7.25 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

This is the first RAF debate in which I have participated since I have been in the House. I confess that my knowledge is not as detailed or of such long standing as that of other hon. Members, but I wish to participate in the debate because I have almost completed a year's secondment with the RAF under the parliamentary scheme.

I pay tribute to the Minister and to the RAF for the considerable resources that were placed at the disposal of the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) and myself over a six-month period. We have seen a huge part of the RAF's operational capability. Everywhere we have been, we have been treated with the utmost courtesy. We have encountered a huge number of RAF personnel, from the most senior officers to the most junior non- commissioned service men. They have always been punctilious and have answered any questions that we might have. As a consequence, I have a reasonably good overall knowledge of how the RAF is functioning. I thank the Minister for that, and the RAF for putting those resources at our disposal.

The Government inherited a situation where RAF numbers had been reduced from about 90,000 to the current deployment of around 55,000. The Minister referred earlier to 53,000. When he winds up, perhaps he would clarify the number for me. Although the reduction has caused some operational difficulties, we still have one of the most flexible air forces in the world. That was demonstrated in the Gulf conflict. The only air force that the Americans would have anywhere near them in the front line was our air force, because of its discipline and training capabilities. That is a great tribute to our RAF.

While on secondment with the RAF, I encountered a number of apprehensions and problems. However, I do not want my remarks to be taken as a criticism of the RAF, which I regard as a superb and flexible organisation. I mentioned the shrinkage in manpower, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) dealt acutely in his excellent speech. As a result of the reduction in manpower, people at officer level and at senior NCO level have not received the promotion that they might otherwise have expected.

At certain RAF stations that I have visited, there is considerable dissatisfaction, particularly at senior NCO level. At one RAF station, I encountered a group of 20 very angry NCOs. When I put to them the standard question that I always ask when meeting such a group—"Would you recommend that your brother, son, daughter, nephew or niece should join the RAF?"—not a single hand was raised. I think that that is rather sad, and I hope that the Minister will look into the problem.

If those NCOs cannot receive promotion, perhaps they could attain some technical grade that ensures an enhancement of their pension, which they justly deserve. As I said, those people are automatically deployed with the RAF and, because they are not front-line pilots, their tours of operation are longer. Therefore, their overstretch is greater than that of pilots. I hope that the Minister will address that problem.

The RAF's personnel are its most important asset: they are irreplaceable. I have already alluded to difficulties with retention caused by the fact that people are not being promoted as they had expected. Recruitment in certain trades, particularly in the technical field—I am thinking, for example, of armourers—will become a real problem. When service men near their release or review dates, they will simply leave the RAF. That is particularly true of service men in their mid-40s. They know that, if they take another seven-year term and remain in the RAF until they are in their 50s, they will be unemployable outside the service. They are precisely the people whom we must retain.

I am also troubled by the issue of recruitment to certain trades. I asked particularly to visit the head of the public relations department, Air Commodore McRobbie, who is an excellent man. I spent quite a long time with him, as I believe that public relations is extremely important not only for the RAF but for all three services. A huge amount of good news about excellent work done by the services both nationally and at individual station level is never reported in the media. I understand that it is difficult to get the media to print good-news stories—newspapers will print with alacrity one bad-news story that cancels out 20 good-news stories—but I think there is a structural problem with the MOD's public relations department that merits the Minister's personal attention.

Air Commodore McRobbie presides over the RAF public relations department. However, there are three separate public relations departments within the RAF for each command, and each has its own commanding officer—in other words, Air Commodore McRobbie does not have control over those three separate departments. Although he works closely with them and they enjoy an amicable relationship, that is not the same as having one senior RAF officer controlling all the public relations economics and personnel.

The public relations department should not be underfunded. It is important that youngsters—particularly those of school age—view the RAF as an attractive, modern and up-to-date organisation; it should be at the forefront of their minds. I have visited the schools in my constituency and I know that that is not so. Several improvements could be made to the RAF to change their attitudes.

Technical qualifications for service men vary throughout the RAF. In some stations in some areas, the situation is extremely good: service men automatically receive an NVQ or a GNVQ if they pass their course. In many cases, the most lowly NCO has a degree before he enters the RAF. However, that does not mean that a proper technical qualification, or perhaps an in-service degree qualification, should not be the norm. The RAF should also be an invest-in-people employer in every department. It should also be the norm that, wherever possible, squadrons and stations are registered ISO 9001. One expects up-to-date qualifications and verifications as a matter of course in an organisation with the RAF's capabilities.

During my time with the RAF, I noted several other matters that merit attention. The Minister mentioned the problem with contractorisation at RAF Valley. In many ways, the contractor agreement at RAF Valley anticipates what will happen with other large contracts elsewhere. RAF Valley is situated in north Wales in an area that is not well populated—there are certainly not many ex-RAF personnel in the vicinity. Many large contractors rely on employing ex-RAF personnel who, because they have severance and redundancy packages or pensions, may be paid relatively low rates.

When considering granting future contracts, will the Minister stipulate that the contractor must carry out a reasonable level of in-service training, particularly of new recruits? That would alleviate the problem that arises at the end of a contract when employees are not available, or, if they are available, are much more expensive, with the result that any potential savings are lost. That is a particularly important issue.

Another issue concerns the interface between contracts, the strategic defence review and value for money. RAF Sealand, for example, had to undergo a contractorisation exercise at the same time as a value-for-money exercise, together with the other reviews that the previous Government put in train. RAF Sealand now faces the strategic defence review. Some of those reviews were inevitable and necessary, but I wonder whether it was a good idea to conduct the contractorisation and value-for-money exercises at the same time. There is concern that, when the present contract comes up for review in five years' time, there will be a continual interface.

Several equipment issues have been raised in the debate. The RAF obviously needs to play a strategic role in any situation in which the British Government wish to deploy it—whether it be in conjunction with other forces on a multilateral or humanitarian basis or on a matter of United Kingdom air defence. I am slightly worried about the time scale of some large defence procurement contracts and the SDR. Although Eurofighter is specifically excluded from the SDR, it represents a huge cost. The potential contract for the United Kingdom is 232 aircraft, and I understand that the procurement will increase to 20 aircraft a year until 2014.

What will happen if a change of Government in Germany delays the signing of the contracts in June? I understand that the first Eurofighters are due to be delivered in 2002, and to be in operational deployment in 2004. If those dates are stretched a little further into the distant future, we might find that our existing Jaguar fleet, with its stand-off capability—if they are spared in the strategic defence review—and our Tornado fleet, with its mid-life update, are very old aircraft indeed. What would happen if we had to deploy in a modern conflict, such as might have arisen in the Gulf recently when Saddam Hussein refused to allow the inspection of weapons sites? I gather that the Americans were unwilling to allow any RAF assets to be used in the first strike. That suggests to me that we should look carefully at the timetable for the deployment of Eurofighter.

It is all very well having a modern airframe with a low radar footprint, but it is only as good as the defensive and offensive aids that are deployed at the aircraft. That brings me to missiles. In the past few weeks, there has been a shake-out of potential missile manufacturers in the United States. I am concerned that the next generation of missiles, the beyond visual range air-to-air missiles—let alone the advanced short range air-to-air missiles—could be delayed even beyond 2007. I understand that that is very much on the cards as the threat from the Russian R77 missiles is perceived to have lessened. However, in these days of increasingly available technology, one never knows from where the threat may come and when ballistic capabilities might be acquired and deployed. We should be making plans so that our aircraft are fitted with the latest missile capability.

There are a number of causes of unhappiness within Ministry of Defence procurement—so-called MOD PE—which is considered to be rather bureaucratic and slow-moving. I ask the Minister to clarify the contract to supply the new generation of C130J Hercules, which are late in delivery. Although an element of compensation is built into the package with Lockheed for the procurement of those aircraft, why is it—this emerged in a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee on class I, II and III votes—that the contract does not provide for full compensation to be paid to the RAF? If there are design problems with the C130J—whether involving icing of the wings, or the propellers, or whatever—the RAF should not suffer financially.

It is true that we have considerably improved the way in which we operate procurement, but a great deal more could still be done. I know that the Government are looking towards smart procurement, but problems have arisen in the past over the large-scale procurement of a large asset. On occasion, all three armed forces have examined the latest example of bolt-on kit and decided, "We must have it." Consideration has not been given to any change in the main contract or what effect the "we must have it" approach would have in terms of delay, delivery and overall costs. No doubt costs are scrutinised carefully when we enter the initial contract, but we do not always scrutinise costs as the contract is proceeding.

It seems to me that there should be clearly defined review dates. There should not be a drip, drip approach to large contracts. A proper review date would enable MOD PE, after one year, two years or whatever period is specified in the initial contract, to say, "This may be desirable, but what will be the revised procurement cost, and for how long will the project be delayed?" Our approach to the procurement of larger assets should be much more disciplined.

I know that other hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate, so I shall be relatively brief in my summing up. As I have said, there is considerable apprehension at all levels of personnel in the RAF about the delay with the strategic defence review. I understand that that is imperative—and I understand also that the SDR must be agreed by the Cabinet—but I hope that the SDR will not become enmeshed in the new expenditure review, which would delay it even further.

I hope that, when the SDR is produced, it will be comprehensive; that it will focus on the proper foreign policy baseline; and that it will give the RAF complete operational capacity to defend the United Kingdom and take part in unilateral or multilateral operations throughout the world while participating in every humanitarian role that the Government of the day may possibly wish it to. The longer the SDR is delayed, the more apprehension there will be; the more personnel will decide, on reaching their review date, not to stay with the RAF; and the more difficulty the Minister will have with recruitment subsequently.

When the result of the SDR is known, I hope that all senior officers in the RAF will take every opportunity to visit every squadron at every base to explain carefully all its implications. At various different stations, the men have said to me, often in front of their station commander, "Yes, we are able to make the points that we wish to make to our station commander but we often do not know whether they go further than him." On those occasions, the station commander naturally gave an explanation.

The Chief of the Air Staff emphasised to the hon. Member for Lincoln and me yesterday that he had had a fair hearing throughout the SDR process. If all men in the RAF could hear the Chief of the Air Staff and other senior officers saying that, they would be considerably more satisfied.

The RAF is a superb and flexible organisation. It is the second best and most flexible—if not the best and most flexible—air force in the world. After 18 years hard work under the previous Conservative Government, the United Kingdom is the second largest defence equipment exporter in the world. I hope that when the SDR is produced, and when all its implications are fully understood, those two positions will be maintained.

7.44 pm
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) to his position on the Opposition Front Bench. His expertise on this subject over a great many years is well known. It is refreshing that that has at last been recognised by his friends on the Opposition Front Bench this evening.

When I was seeking inspiration for my brief speech this evening, I decided to look back to the last time that the House debated the Royal Air Force, which was on 6 February 1997, when my hon. Friend made a detailed and distinguished speech that lasted 35 minutes. He covered the spectrum of life in the Royal Air Force. His speech filled me with trepidation when considering the modesty of my own interest in the RAF.

I feel some trepidation also in being called immediately after my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who is a parliamentary neighbour. He and I shared, until relatively recently, the distinguished RAF base at Kemble. My hon. Friend has the great advantage of being on the RAF side of the armed forces parliamentary scheme—a scheme I am just about to complete. That is gladly from my point of view but sadly in terms of the debate, because I have been on the Army side of the scheme. That being so, I claim none of my hon. Friend's expertise.

I had intended to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), who unfortunately is no longer in his place. I presumed, rather ungenerously, that he would not vote against the Government if he disagreed with them on the subject of the Territorial Army. On reflection, it occurred to me that he courageously rebelled against the Government on handguns when a debate on that subject took place in the House some time ago. I am therefore confident that he will have the courage of his convictions if the Territorial Army is cut as deeply as the newspapers would have us believe it is about to be.

None the less, the hon. Gentleman accused me across the Chamber of misleading the House on the Labour party's history on defence cuts. I forbore from intervening at the time to object to that accusation, but despite the fact that the hon. Gentleman is no longer in the Chamber—perhaps he will read my remarks in Hansard tomorrow—it might be worth placing on the record precisely what Labour party conferences over the past few years have said on defence.

Since 1995, any move to debate defence spending at the Labour party conference has been banned in favour of a motion calling only for a defence review. Before that, for six consecutive years there were motions calling for a cut in defence spending to the western European average—a cut of £5 billion. All those motions were passed. As recently as October 1990, at least five members of the Cabinet defied the Labour leadership by voting for that policy on the National Executive Committee.

In 1993, a Labour party conference resolution to cut defence spending was passed with a necessary majority. In 1995, the leadership avoided the debate altogether. It was then faced in the House with a rebel motion, which was supported by 42 Labour Back-Bench Members.

The suggestion that the Labour party has always been in the forefront of defending defence is absurd, and the notion that the strategic defence review is foreign-policy-led and may not result in substantial cuts in the defence budget is extraordinary. Labour's track record is there for all to see. I find it distasteful that the hon. Member for Stockton, North accused me of misleading the House.

Experts on news management will use the SDR in years to come, perhaps when someone is engaged in a PhD on it, as an example of a classic case of news management. There has been a series of leaks in Sunday newspapers along with briefing, counter-briefing, rumours and counter-rumours, on what the outcome of the SDR will be. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) correctly said that a great deal of that material will be coming from the special adviser. My hon. Friend should know; he was a special adviser in the Ministry of Defence during the previous Administration, as were other of my hon. Friends.

The strategy is well known. Someone has a word with a journalist from The Sunday Times and says to him, "You know, some people are suggesting that the RAF should be disbanded altogether, giving up fixed wing aircraft to the Royal Navy and helicopters to the Army, or vice versa, but I'm not sure whether you should carry that on Sunday." On Sunday, The Sunday Times carries it, and on Monday the Ministry of Defence assesses the reaction. If there is utter opposition and people throw up their hands in horror, the Minister says, "I have no idea where that journalist got that extraordinary story from. Don't worry about it." If the reaction is positive, however, the Ministry will crack ahead with the policy. That is classic news management, and the SDR is a classic example of it.

Another advantage of news management is expectation management. By putting about a story in The Sunday Times that we may be about to disband the RAF, the Minister can turn round when the SDR comes out and say, "Don't worry, those are absurd stories." Indeed, he did that rather convincingly this evening. He can say, "Those stories that we might consider disbanding the RAF were, of course, nonsense. I can reassure the House that all we are going to do is cut it in half, and that's not nearly as bad as the story that that idiot in The Sunday Times carried some months ago."

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I hope that my hon. Friend can reassure me that he is not related to Mr. Bernard Grey, who seems to be responsible for many of these things.

Mr. Gray

Heaven forfend. I have the distinction of having an "a" in my surname, and therefore am a Scot. I suspect that Mr. Grey has an "e" in his name and therefore, I regret to say, is an Englishman. Perhaps I should not say that, as I represent an English constituency. I must be careful about these matters—and it is St. George's day. I regret that I am not wearing a rose, but 1 admire the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) who is. I wish that I were.

The news management, briefing, leaking and counter-briefing that has been going on in the context of the SDR has been made worse because of the inter-service rivalry in and around the Ministry of Defence—Army against Navy, RAF against Army, and so on. The Minister says that that cannot be the case, but I have a letter from a serving General in the Army, whose name will remain confidential. He is a friend of mine. He has written on Ministry of Defence writing paper. In his letter, he says: I … do not hold to the view … that the RAF should be disbanded and that their aircraft should be flown by the Army and RN. What I advocate most strongly is that they are outrageously overmanned for what they do and deliver. Some of what they do now could be sensibly privatised … I consider that the RAF must be forced to identify their core business". He goes on for two or three pages, telling me, a humble Back Bencher, how he believes the RAF must be slashed to pieces. There is no PS, but the hidden PS is, "But, of course, my particular branch of the Army must be saved."

It is entirely unhealthy that one service should be against the other. It is particularly unhealthy when the Regular Army is against the Territorial Army, or vice versa. I very much hope that the strategic defence review will not give in to such rivalry, but that it will instead do precisely what the Minister has always claimed—use a foreign policy baseline to produce a sensible combination of the three services.

It is extraordinary that the foreign policy baseline, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk referred so convincingly, has not been published. That inevitably leads Opposition Members to presume that there is no such thing. I am particularly puzzled that, when announcing the strategic defence review, the Minister went to great lengths to make it clear that Eurofighter and Trident were exempt. We all welcome that and would not for a second suggest that they should be reviewed, but if the review has a foreign policy baseline, how can one start by excluding the two most expensive items in our defence budget? There can be no foreign policy baseline if one excludes consideration of those two things. The reason they are being excluded is surely the employment consequences of doing away with them. In other words, the review is economics-led—Treasury-led—not necessarily foreign-policy-led.

None the less, I am encouraged by what the Secretary of State said when we last debated this subject: he gave an absolute commitment that there would be no cuts as a result of the strategic defence review. I think that he said at the time that he would put his job on the line on that basis. If there are deep cuts when the SDR is announced, as we on the Opposition Benches suspect, I am certain that all Ministers currently serving in the Ministry of Defence will have to consider their positions carefully.

I have a particularly strong constituency interest in this subject. North Wiltshire is firmly a defence-related constituency, and the RAF in particular has always played an extraordinarily important part in it. Until recently, my constituency had RAF Lyneham, RAF Kemble, RAF Rudloe Manor, RAF Colerne and RAF Hullavington. I regret to say that we do not have all those bases now, which we all deeply regret. Some of them have converted to Army use. RAF Lyneham, RAF Rudloe Manor and RAF Colerne are the only three that remain with the RAF.

In that context, I divert from the RAF to a more interesting constituency area—the disposal of the former RAF bases, which I hope you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will consider in order, as it is closely allied to looking after the RAF families who live in the area and to other RAF issues, even if it is not directly related to the issue of the RAF as currently structured. I hope that the Minister will be prepared to answer these points when he winds up.

The first point is about RN Copenacre. Hon. Members may be surprised that North Wiltshire, which I suspect is the most inland constituency in Britain, has a Royal Navy base. It is probably the most inland RN base anywhere. It has been wound up, and we have a large vacant site. The Minister is considering where the Defence Vetting Agency should be based. I believe that the three options available are Woolwich, Southampton and RN Copenacre. I very much hope that he will consider moving the agency to Copenacre.

Until recently, Corsham's economy was 39 per cent. dependent on defence. I think that that is the largest dependency of any town in England. It is extraordinarily high. The closure of Copenacre, Rudloe Manor, Spring Quarry and others has caused significant difficulties for the town. Many people in Corsham commute to Bath, Bristol and Chippenham to work now that there is no RAF employment in the town. We are in the process of applying for Government funding to re-establish Corsham station, which existed until recently. The county council owns the land. I hope that the Minister will speak to the Minister of Transport and that he will add his voice to ours, suggesting that the station has something to be said for it, or that we may be successful in applying for Konver II funds from the European Union to make up the economic deficit as a result of the closure of RAF bases.

I ask the Minister and his colleagues to hasten the sale of three sites in my constituency, all of which are still owned by the RAF but which could be better used in other ways—RAF Kemble, RAF Rudloe Manor and RAF Spring Quarry. The Minister might be interested to hear that the RAF Kemble Heritage Association, which is a limited company and represents businesses currently based on the site, has come to an agreement with the four local authorities involved—two in Gloucestershire and two in Wiltshire. They are putting together a joint proposal on purchasing the RAF Kemble site for use by the existing businesses on it and to keep it open as an airfield. Many businesses are dependent on the airfield.

Perhaps the Minister will give the proposal careful consideration, particularly if a property speculator comes along with an outrageously high bid for the site. The RAF Kemble Heritage Association is, I understand, prepared to pay £500,000 more than the commercial valuation for the site. It is prepared to pay a reasonable market price for it. Perhaps property speculators will come along in the hope of building housing on the site and will pay a ridiculously large amount. I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to deviate slightly from the subject to make that important point to the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I did not realise that my hon. Friend intended to raise the subject of RAF Kemble, which is half in Gloucestershire and half in Wiltshire. I intervene only to reinforce what he says by asking the Minister please to hasten the decision on the sale. Commercial contracts relating to the leasing of the buildings are at stake, and it would be helpful if it could be put on the market as soon as possible. I believe that the planning brief has been virtually finalised, so there is no reason why it should not be put on the market.

Mr. Gray

I apologise to my hon. Friend. I should have mentioned to him that I intended to raise the matter of RAF Kemble. I think that it is two thirds in Wiltshire and one third in Gloucestershire, but we shall not argue about that. My hon. Friend spoke at some length earlier about the C130Js based at RAF Lyneham and he did not tell me about that, so perhaps it is fair do's all round.

The remaining existing and strong RAF interest in my constituency is largely based in and around RAF Lyneham, which has 3,000 personnel. If one throws in their wives and others who stay with them, that is a substantial part of my electorate.

Mr. Frank Cook

Wives thrown in.

Mr. Gray

We, being trendy new Conservatives, are happy to accept that people other than wives may be staying with them. I believe that "partners" is the currently acceptable new Labour expression. They account for a large number of the voters in my constituency.

The well-being of RAF Lyneham is extremely high on the agenda of issues with which I am much concerned. RAF Lyneham does not seem to be threatened in any shape or form by the strategic defence review, but we are, none the less, disappointed that a beautiful new training building has been erected for the new C130J Hercules, with training already taking place in the mock-ups getting ready for the arrival of the aeroplane, but that so far the aeroplane is delayed by about one year. I understand that it may now be ready by November or December. I hope that it will be, but I cannot help but feel that RAF Lyneham is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold, I wonder why Lockheed is not being pressed more fully for full compensation for the late delivery of the aeroplane.

Also based at RAF Lyneham is the very good RAF auxiliary squadron of air dispatchers. They are nearly all retired RAF people. I think that I am right in saying that it is the only air dispatch squadron in the Territorial Army. We also have the air mobile squadron, which has the famous claim to be first in and last out in any conflict because the Hercules must be there with the stores.

I want to raise several issues concerning families and the way in which people live in and around RAF Lyneham. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) rightly said that defence debates such as this are about not only guns and aeroplanes but the way in which the RAF and service personnel live with their families.

The first issue that I am particularly keen to raise concerns schools. The school in Lyneham, and particularly secondary schools in north Wiltshire, have raised with me the fact that the standard spending assessment is based on the number of children in a school, a figure which can be calculated only once a year—I think on 19 March, or around that time.

I have raised the matter with the Department for Education and Employment, but it tells me that, if it were to change the basis of the calculation for service schools such as those in my constituency, it would have to do the same for other schools. If service personnel are posted and, as a result, the number of children in a school goes up or down, the Government should be ready to increase, or on occasion to decrease, the amount of money given to the county for its schools.

I appeal to the Government to change the method of calculating SSA so that the number of service children in secondary schools in north Wiltshire might be calculated, say, once a quarter, so that the SSA more accurately reflects the number of children in the schools.

I do not want to be distasteful, but another issue that I am keen to raise relates to sewerage in and around RAF Lyneham. Because of the de-icing of the runway at RAF Lyneham during many years, the sewers, which have not been renewed since the 19th century, regularly clog up. The water and sewerage provision in the area—on the base and in the village—is unacceptable.

The issue was raised with the MOD, I understand, as long ago as 1972, and the MOD gave the absolute assurance that the work would start in 1997 and be completed in 1998. I regret to say that, despite that assurance, sewerage in the village of Lyneham is still in something of a mess.

Labour Members point this way. They may be right; the failure to renew the sewers in Lyneham may be the result of a slippage on the part of the previous Conservative Government. [Interruption.] There will be a slippage if the sewers keep bursting. Had I spoken on the subject as a Government Back-Bencher, I would have been as harsh on my Minister as I am being on the present Minister. Will the Government please sort out the sewerage in Lyneham with all due dispatch?

The RAF has been the lifeblood of my constituency now for many generations, and it still is to a significant degree in the form of RAF Lyneham and the many retired RAF personnel who live in the area. The RAF is an extraordinarily important part of life in North Wiltshire. Therefore, as we approach the strategic defence review, I join my hon. Friends in appealing to the Minister not to forget the RAF, the RAF families who surround the bases and the RAF retired personnel who have given such distinguished service over the years.

8.6 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I am delighted to participate in the debate—a prospect which I particularly relish given the presence of the Minister for the Armed Forces, who is such an engaging character, who really enjoys his job. He is certainly a round peg in a round hole. He enjoys it so much that I understand that he may even seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to speak again.

However, the Minister may have found his match in my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who I am delighted will respond on behalf of the Opposition. I join my hon. Friends in paying tribute to him, because he is one of the great experts in the House, and has been for many years, on matters to do with aviation, not just the RAF.

I also pay tribute to the Minister for the way in which he is trying to approach the review. He mentioned earlier a meeting which took place 48 hours ago. It is important that people outside the House should understand that, although parties may differ on detailed issues of policy, nevertheless hon. Members speak to each other. Occasionally, we even enjoy a glass of wine together. I may say to the Minister that the Chardonnay could have been slightly cooler, but no doubt he will have a word with his private secretary about that. Despite our differences, we do have the opportunity to engage in constructive debate.

In view of the important contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), this has been a wide-ranging debate, moving from sewerage at Lyneham through to the wider issue of the joint strike fighter going on into the 21st century.

I am delighted to participate in the debate because I have such a great attachment to the RAF. I venture to suggest that I even owe my existence to the RAF, because my parents met when serving with the RAF in the far east during the war. They knew each other for only five weeks before they were married, so but for the RAF I would not be here. I have a greater interest than even the Minister in the well-being of the RAF, and everyone who has its interests at heart will be delighted by his assurance that it is safe as a separate service.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said when he outlined the Opposition's position, we are debating the RAF in a vacuum, because the strategic defence review has not been completed yet, and we have nothing firm to go on. Understandably, the Minister cannot give details today, so we rely to an extent on rumour, speculation or even hunch. We do not know the provenance of stories floated in the press, and do not know how accurate they may be.

Dr. Reid

Nor do I.

Mr. Howarth

We do not know how accurate such stories are, but there may be truth in them. It is the job of the Opposition to press the point and to ensure that they are not considered to be simply the wild imaginings of journalists; indeed, they may be kites flown by Ministers to test public opinion.

The Minister hopes that the review will be published ere long. He and the Secretary of State have made it clear that it is driven by foreign policy considerations, and that it will not be resource or Treasury-driven. As Conservative Defence Ministers discovered, the Treasury is a powerful institution; many people argue that it is too powerful. The Treasury has an important role to play, but I hope that the Minister will ensure that it does not get its way, and does not use the review as a cost-cutting exercise, because that would destroy the reputation and credibility of the Minister and of the Secretary of State.

The Minister and the Secretary of State have made great play of the fact that the review is based on foreign policy considerations and on creating the right shape of forces with which to meet the foreign policy baseline. If it turns out to be a cost-cutting exercise, their credibility will be shot to pieces and there will be great anger. I hope that it will not come to that, and I do not think it will, because I take comfort from the fact that the Government, like their Conservative predecessors, believe in exerting British influence throughout the world, and acknowledge that the armed forces have an important role in underpinning and reinforcing British foreign policy.

The British people take great pride not only in the quality of the services, as has been acknowledged by hon. Members from both sides of the House, but in the fact that our services professionally, skilfully and effectively carry out the tasks that the Government call on them to undertake in support of British foreign policy around the world, whether they be humanitarian or, as in the Gulf war, offensive.

The Prime Minister has been in office for a year, and has great aspirations to walk on water and to flex his muscles internationally. The Prime Minister could see his ambitions and aspirations on the international stage thwarted if the Treasury comes down too hard on Defence Ministers' proposals. He would not tolerate that, and I hope that the Treasury would be given its marching orders.

Hon. Members have mentioned morale in the RAF and in the services generally, which is an extremely important issue. The review represents the third reconfiguration of our armed forces in less than 10 years. My hon. Friends with more direct experience of the RAF than I have, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), have mentioned many examples of the dissatisfaction—I shall not use the word "despair"—that is felt around the services.

The RAF has received much of the flak during reviews and studies. Overstretch is common to all three services, but the numbers relating to the RAF speak for themselves. In 1990, the RAF had 90,000 personnel. The general mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire will be pleased that the number will be reduced to 52,500 by next April—a 40per cent. cut in manpower, which must have an impact on operational effectiveness.

In 1996, the Defence Committee concluded that the RAF was only just about meeting its commitments. Since then, additional calls have been made on the RAF to act on behalf of the Government in a wide range of roles—the Minister mentioned the extensive commitments in which the RAF has been engaged since he became responsible for it—despite continuing decline in numbers. Morale has unquestionably suffered.

I pay tribute to someone who has not been mentioned in the debate, but who deserves considerable credit for the extraordinary dignity and courtesy that he showed while commanding the RAF during the past five years. Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon had great political pressures placed on him when he was in command, and he had to watch his service take fantastic reductions in manpower and in equipment. Sir Michael has now retired, after doing a great job in difficult circumstances.

The result of the review for the RAF and for the other services must be the creation of a stable climate in which there are real career prospects for those who join the services, especially the RAF. They must think that is a service worth joining for the long term, not simply to put in the hours on a long-haul transport aircraft necessary to get a better paid job with British Airways with infinitely reduced commitments and more time to spend with their families. The Minister must address that matter.

Ministers have said that they believe in the continuation of the three separate services. Subject to more jointery, I hope that that will happen. Jointery is not new. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) was at the Ministry of Defence when it was first pushed up its scale of priorities, and the previous Administration carried out rationalisation, although there is clearly scope for more.

The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) was not enthusiastic about Eurofighter, and questioned the need for it. I shall deal with that issue in a moment, but we must understand why we need a separate RAF and what its role is. I can do no better than quote from a recent article by Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Knight, chairman of the Air League and chairman of Cobham plc, and a very great man indeed. He wrote:

Whether it be in the provision of vital intelligence information; transporting key combat troops and equipment rapidly over great distances; broad area surveillance of enemy movement; the ability to disrupt enemy machinery for command and control; gaining local or, if necessary, theatre air supremacy, thereby allowing land and maritime forces to move with relative impunity; threatening or, if required, executing ever more precise attacks on the enemy's key installations and weapons systems. In these and many other situations of combat and near-combat, the air provides the key to joint-service success. That encapsulates what the RAF is about. It has a range of roles. It does not have one simple role, but that is summed up in one expression: air superiority. Without that in the Gulf, we would have had a much more dramatic loss of life, which would not have been sustainable against public opinion at home. Therefore, air superiority is vital, but to provide it is not cheap, as Ministers are finding out.

This should not be seen as a debate between investment in people and investment in equipment. Of course the people are important—everyone has paid tribute to the skills of those who serve, particularly those in the RAF who fly combat aircraft. I have never flown one myself, but it is a very skilled operation. Pilots have to be able not just to fly, but to manage a sophisticated weapons system as well. We need first-class supplies both of equipment and personnel, so we cannot stint on training. In this review, I shall look carefully at the implications for RAF training.

In the 1980s, during the time of the previous Government, there were severe restrictions on flying hours. It is no good having highly professional pilots who have not had the flying hours to maintain their capability on the aircraft. Not only that, but I do not believe that Members of Parliament or Ministers would be able to have clear consciences if they knew that they were providing highly professional and skilled people, who are devoted to their country and committed to their service, with second-rate kit. We have to give them the best equipment available. Preferably, it will be British, and generally those two coincide.

I am concerned at the proposal to mothball some kit. I hope that, when he sums up for the Opposition, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood will deal with the question about the Jaguars. If Eurofighter is not going to come into operation until later, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold suggested, we have a serious gap. The Jaguar has a role to play, and I do not believe that it should be mothballed.

It is no good mothballing kit if no pilots with current flying experience with the aircraft are available when we need it, and if there are no qualified engineers with up-to-date training to service it. Otherwise, those aircraft will go into theatre without proper servicing back-up. That needs to be dealt with.

In the new world order, Governments expect to call on the services at a moment's notice, so they must not deny them the training. That was what was behind my question to the Minister, when I asked what "high-intensity readiness" meant. I hope that the services are getting a lot of training, so that they can feel confident about going straight into battle.

On training, I am bound, as a former university air squadron pilot, to say that I hope that university air squadrons will be safe in the review. They have an important part to play. They are a great source of air-minded young men and women with the opportunity to fly, and a source of material for the RAF.

It is important that we understand that we provide the equipment for our services to ensure that they have the best available to carry out the tasks we impose on them. It is not for the benefit of industry, but there is, of course, an industrial dimension to this; it would be foolish to ignore that, particularly as British Aerospace happens to be one of Britain's great success stories.

It is appropriate to pay tribute to Sir Dick Evans, who has been just been appointed, with effect from next month, chairman of British Aerospace, and John Weston, who will become, I think, chief executive, for their contribution over a long period to the industry. I do not think that anyone with the interests of the RAF at heart will deny that it has done well in terms of equipment. Some exciting new equipment has been delivered, and some is yet to come.

Going through some of the programmes, as I tried to say to the hon. Member for Ipswich, it is extremely important that we have Eurofighter. It is also important that we cease this endless debate about something in which we have invested a huge amount of money, time and skill. It not only provides us with an air superiority fighter, which is what we need—it is a superb aircraft in that role—but enables us to continue to develop a huge range of technologies, in many of which Britain leads the world.

Eurofighter exists not as a job-creation scheme, but to provide a first-class bit of kit. However, it also gives British industry the opportunity to remain at the leading edge of technology, so that, when it comes to the joint strike fighter, British industry will be able to play its part and perhaps get the chance to take part in production of an aircraft for the United States air force.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Will my hon. Friend consider another aspect of Eurofighter? It is not only the present predicted procurement by the four partner nations that is important. Because it has nearly the same capability as the F-22, but at a considerably lower price, Eurofighter has a large potential export market. Therefore, it is important that the four basic partners get on and commit themselves to the numbers at the present time.

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend is right. Essentially, only three or four aircraft will be in this category. They include the F-22, which, as he says, will be hugely expensive, and the Eurofighter, which will be almost as technologically advanced—it does not have stealth capability—but at a much lower price. As I worked for the Sukhoi Design Bureau for a year, I can tell hon. Members that the SU-27 is out there as well, and is also very effective. To say that Eurofighter has enormous export potential is perhaps exaggerating, but I think that it has export potential.

It will help if the Government commit to the beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile. I am sorry to go on again about it, and I shall not say any more than that, but I ask the Minister to take himself back to the debate about whether we should go down the American route of the high-speed anti-radiation missile, or develop our own.

I was one of those in favour of developing our own system ALARM, the air-launched anti-radiation missile, because the Americans would not allow us access to the head technology of the high-speed anti-radiation missile, HARM. If the Americans want to do business with us, it is essential that they let us have access to the technology, or there is no deal on the table. The opportunity of giving British and European industry the chance through the Meteor programme of producing a world-class missile should not be lost. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

The recent exercise in the Gulf has shown the importance of carriers as platforms. I agree with John Keegan that it would be welcome if the Government produced some serious aircraft carriers. As he said:

What is needed is a short take-off supersonic aircraft, equally acceptable to the Navy and the RAF. I have always believed in supersonic VSTOL—vertical short take-off and landing aircraft. More development funds should be put towards that.

Other colleagues have mentioned the future large Antonov. I get fed up being told how anti-European we are in the UK. British Aerospace has been working flat out on the future large aircraft, and what are the Germans doing? They are running off talking to the Ukrainians about the Antonov-AN70. We are the good Europeans, not only on this, but on many other issues—and I say that as a proclaimed Euro-sceptic.

Mr. Keith Simpson


Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend did not seem to be aware of that. I will have a word with him in the Tea Room later. I have obviously not made my policy clear.

We must have some decisions. The Hercules will not be around indefinitely. I entirely support the C 130J, and, although there are problems, I believe that they will be resolved. The Government must start making some decisions on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury mentioned the problems with Slingsby. The Minister should be concerned that there seems to have been some moving of the goalposts. I have flown the Firefly, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip—Northwood. It is a very good aircraft. Having made the improvements to it, Slingsby has removed any obstacle to enabling Ministers to select that aircraft. I hope that the MOD will not be guilty of the crime of moving the goalposts and disqualifying Slingsby for putting in a bid that was compatible with the original request for a proposal.

I have written to the Secretary of State—he has kindly replied to me today—about the future of Dowty. I am concerned at the prospect that Britain might be about to lose ownership of one of its successful supply companies. At present, Dowty is half owned by Snecma of France and half by the TI group in the United Kingdom.

I have not had the assurance that I sought from the Secretary of State. If the state-owned French company is to acquire Dowty Aerospace, which has 40 per cent. of the world market in landing gear for civil and military aircraft, the Government must tell us what security of supply there will be for landing gear for Eurofighter and other aircraft if the French chose at some point to close factories in the United Kingdom and transfer manufacturing to France.

As we have heard tonight, the Royal Air Force is a great service that has done us all proud. It has done us proud in a way that relates to my constituency.

For many years, man has sought to break the sound barrier on land. It has been done in the air many times, but it has only just been achieved on land. It was achieved by Andy Green, a Tornado pilot. It was a fantastic achievement. I do not think that people fully understand the risks involved. The driver had a huge influence in that record being broken. He went through the sound barrier with the steering column at 90 deg, such was the drift of the Thrust SSC vehicle. It was his qualities as a Tornado pilot that enabled him to do that.

I conclude by paying tribute to the Royal Air Force for the support it gave to Andy Green and to Sarah Millington, who was at base control. It gave them some time off—not very much, I hasten to assure the Minister—and that sums up the Royal Air Force, the quality of its personnel and what it can achieve.

8.33 pm
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

It is extraordinary that, in the 80th anniversary year of the Royal Air Force, people are still talking about whether it will continue as an institution. The Minister felt the need to make that explicit in his opening speech. Any serious examination of the RAF's contribution makes it clear that there is no question of anyone being unwise enough to do without it, in the same way as no one could conceive, politically, of getting rid of 80 per cent. of the Territorial Army's combat elements. It is on that scale of political foolishness.

As other hon. Members have said, when such questions are raised, it resonates with serving and retired members of the RAF that, occasionally, the questions are taken seriously enough to be repeated in the newspapers. There has been a culture of insecurity about the Royal Air Force that has produced one or two unwelcome effects as it has sought to compete against the other two more senior and established services. Indeed, in his opening remarks, the Minister described the RAF as the junior service. I know that he did not mean it like that, but such comments are unwelcome, and reinforce the feeling of insecurity.

It has meant that, within the Ministry of Defence, the Royal Air Force has taken extremely successful political action to secure its position. It groomed future chiefs of the air staff from an early age to fight the political battle for the RAF inside Whitehall. In my experience in the Ministry of Defence, that has meant that the central control over ideas and the development of tactical doctrine was strong in the RAF and very centralised. People coming up with different and challenging ideas were not welcome. That is a pity, and it is unnecessary.

The strategic defence review is supposed to be a wonderful open process, and I hope that, following in the steps of "Front Line First", which invited ideas from the armed forces for improving the support area of the services and which, in a sense, let a thousand flowers bloom, ideas will be welcome from service men, particularly those in the Royal Air Force. I hope that it will not feel the need to entrench its position and be defensive.

I can give an example. The ownership of support helicopters has, for a long time, been seen as something to be defended by the RAF, not in desperation but in determination not to give up any part of that empire; yet, for decades there has been an extremely strong case for examining how we organise our support helicopters which fly, most of the time, in support of the Army. Has there really been a case for constantly maintaining strict ownership of support helicopters within the Royal Air Force?

Such has been the mentality within the Ministry of Defence that I am told that, some years ago, there was almost a formal agreement between the Chief of the Air Staff and the Chief of the General Staff that, if the Chief of the General Staff stopped trying to get hold of the support helicopters, the Chief of the Air Staff would stop trying to get hold of the new attack helicopters. We are beginning to get away from that mentality. 1 hope that, in this 80th anniversary year, the RAF will feel that there is no threat that needs to be addressed in that way.

Another consequence of its political success in the Ministry of Defence is that it has achieved, almost stunningly accurately, 33 per cent. of defence expenditure, along with 33 per cent. for the Royal Navy and 33 per cent. for the Army. When I arrived as a special adviser at the Ministry of Defence and looked carefully at the statistics, I was amazed at how consistent that picture had been for a long time. The services had cleverly seemed to carve up the cake almost equally between them, as if, regardless of the strategic or technological circumstances, a deal had to be done between the chiefs of staff.

The Royal Air Force should be confident with names such as Trenchard, Harris and Dowding, and it should know, from the history of the 20th century, that there will always be a place for it, not least for the regimental ethos that supports such a terrific service to our country. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) in paying tribute to Sir Michael Graydon, who led the Royal Air Force through extremely difficult times. The manning figure today is 53,000, and four years ago, if my memory serves me correctly, it was 75,000. Yet it is still deploying the same front-line operational output as it did four years ago. That is a terrific tribute to the way in which Sir Michael Graydon has reorganised the Royal Air Force and implemented the "Front Line First" reforms, which, of all the services, were most painful for the Royal Air Force.

The Royal Air Force clearly has a place because of the importance today of air supremacy. If we examine the potential threats to the United Kingdom, we realise that it is obvious that we need air superiority to defend our island. The Air Force is the last defence before we have to rely on our nuclear deterrent. Conservative Members certainly want to retain that as a backstop, but the contribution made by the Air Force to the defence of our island should never be underestimated.

Let us consider the operations in which we are taking part and those in which we have taken part in the previous two decades. During the Falklands conflict, we only just managed to sustain air superiority over the supremely brave Argentine pilots, who flew their aircraft to the very limit of their range. We were able to bear the casualties from the Sir Galahad because the operation was vital to our national interest and we had to resecure the defence of the Falkland islands, but what about the operation in Bosnia?

The Bosnian Serbs possessed one or two aircraft which they left sitting on the ground because they knew that, the moment they took off, they would be shot down. Let us imagine what would happen if that were not the case, if we did not have total air supremacy, and if we were made to suffer casualties like those involved with the Sir Galahad by an organisation that could get away with using one or two aircraft to score a spectacular hit, it becomes clear how important it is that we sustain the defence capability of the Air Force at the highest possible level that we can afford. That today means the Eurofighter. Several hon. Members have already commented on the need for Eurofighter, and I wholly agree.

Even further into the future, we are now looking at the joint strike fighter which is being developed with the United States. It is a terribly important partnership. It is also a good example of smart procurement, and the way the procurement is being handled—the way in which two industrial conglomerates' teams are together putting their rival schemes to the Pentagon—is a model that I am sure the Ministry of Defence will be examining.

Mention has been made of our increased need for strategic lift as we move towards an expeditionary force capability. There is clearly a case to made for the C17. I do not think we can afford the C5 which is the giant at the end of the strategic lift market, but the C17 seems extremely well suited to the needs of our armed forces. Four C 17s could deploy an armoured reconnaissance squadron into theatre and have them deployed, including their echelon, into a battle position. That would be a very speedy way to get light armour on the ground to demonstrate a presence. The C17 can also move tanks and is an ideal complement to the C130J.

There have, of course, been problems with the introduction of the C130J but I and other members of the Select Committee on Defence have been given an assurance by senior executives at Lockheed that the final part of the C130J order will be delivered on time. The earlier part of the delivery schedule was delayed because Lockheed, by its own admission, took its eye off the ball and did not appreciate how difficult some aspects of the development of that aircraft would be. I should be glad to hear if the Minister knows otherwise, but I understand that Lockheed will deliver the last of the in-service fleet on time according to the original specification.

British Aerospace is constantly frigging around with the future large aircraft. I should like to point out to British Aerospace that there are times when things simply do not fit into the RAF's operational requirements schedule, and the FLA is one of them. We are shortly going to have to replace the C130Ks. The FLA has been a distraction, and, frankly, the previous Administration was guilty of giving the political nod to British Aerospace which ran extremely high-profile campaigns to keep the FLA in the game. As far as 1 remember, we did not commit more than thruppence ha'penny to the development programme, but it was a mistake anyway.

The C130J and the C17 give us two complementary capabilities, and it would be extraordinary if we brought a third major transport aircraft into the fleet. It would be a significant mistake. We should now make it clear that we are going with the C130J and should hold Lockheed to deliver the current tranche as agreed. I understand that we have a very good offer, in competitive terms, for follow-on buys, as we were the first military purchaser of the C130J.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Does my hon. Friend agree that, whereas the Lightning had two collaborative partners and the Eurofighter has four, the FLA is likely to have eight? That means more potential for political procrastination. The difficulty is in getting eight potential partners to agree to one programme.

Mr. Blunt

I agree to some extent. Quite legitimately, British Aerospace would say in response that Airbus, the civil side, has been a terrific success, so why cannot that be the model for the procurement of the FLA. However, the FLA is too unknown. It does not fit the operational needs of the Royal Air Force. If one challenges British Aerospace about whether we are really going to have three aircraft in the inventory, it says that it will buy the C130Js and lease them to other people to make room in the inventory for FLA. That is pretty incredible, and it cannot mean value for money, either for British Aerospace or the Ministry of Defence. I urge the Ministry to focus on a C17 and C130J mix.

Finally, I deal with support helicopters, and pick up my initial theme of how the Air Force organises itself. I want the Air Force as an institution to feel secure, but it has to be open to new ideas on how to reorganise its contribution to the whole defence effort. Support helicopters are a classic case of a capability that should belong to the Army. Clearly, we must find a home for the people who joined the services with the intention of flying fast jets but who, having gone through expensive training, were then found not quite to have the mental or physical capability to fly fast jets, although they are perfectly capable of flying transport aircraft or support helicopters. We do not want to waste all the training invested in those people, but do we really need an all-officer flying crew for something that is, frankly, the equivalent of a flying truck?

The Army Air Corps has non-commissioned officers who fly aircraft extremely well. I know from my own work that if we had the same rank structure flying the support helicopters of the Royal Air Force as are flying the helicopters of the Army Air Corps, who arguably fly more demanding missions involving combat and tactical decisions in the field, on capitation costs alone of the rank structure, we would save about £8 million a year.

Mr. Keith Simpson

My hon. Friend's theme is the maintenance of the morale of the RAF, and its heritage and history. He will know that, during the first and second world wars, the RAF had sergeant-pilots in operational fighting aircraft.

Mr. Blunt

That is true, and these days, we should look for the best flyers. In terms of flying attack or support helicopters, I am not sure that we must look to the officer corps to provide pilots.

I am afraid that I must return to the issue of the Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre. I share the concerns expressed in the House about the merits of the decision by the RAF board of inquiry, which has been supported by Ministers. It is beyond peradventure that, even without the voice data recorders from inside the support helicopter, the pilots were negligent—that is what has been said in the board of inquiry report. Frankly, it is almost impossible to achieve the standards asked for and, like other hon. Members, I hope the Minister will look at that matter again.

8.50 pm
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

It is a great pleasure to contribute to a debate which has been so erudite and well informed. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), and I associate myself with his comments on the Thrust SSC team who did so much to raise British morale and spirits recently.

I pay tribute also to my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who attacked the present arrangements for the RAF's public relations department. He has won the prize as the first person in the UK to find an area in which the Government have under-invested in PR. That is surely notable.

On a less partisan note, I shared the sentiments that the Minister expressed in congratulating the RAF on its 80th anniversary, and his comments on the 50th anniversary of the Berlin airlift. In particular, I share his tribute to the former Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin who, in the role he played in the creation of NATO, the Berlin airlift and turning the Marshall plan from theory into fact, was the outstanding British Foreign Secretary of this century.

The Minister referred to low flying. Perhaps he thought that, with the debate coming towards its end, he had escaped without any constituency representations on the issue. However, the Minister and my constituents would be surprised if I made no reference to low flying. It is not true that in my constituency—in the southern part of the Lake district—there is unanimous concern about low flying. When letters appeared in the Westmorland Gazette a year or so ago from people suggesting that RAF aircraft were flying so low that it was possible to see the pilot from their bedroom, a 15-year-old boy wrote to the paper, saying that he was extremely jealous and that he wished he could inspect the site where those wonderful aircraft could be seen so close.

I fully accept that we cannot expect young men and women to put their lives in danger for us in combat and training without providing them with the ability to train in a low-flying environment within the UK. My constituents accept that our area is relatively underpopulated and should take a balanced share of that activity. Some concerns have been expressed by the Lake district national park authority and the Yorkshire dales national park authority that perhaps the amount of low flying we are getting is a little disproportionate. We do not attack the principle of it, but I hope that the Minister will bear in mind my representations. I hope that he will assure us that we are not getting more than our fair share.

The strategic defence review has been referred to. There is the potential for the Government to believe that one of the ways of having deployable air power is to have serious aircraft carriers. I very much support the idea of having serious aircraft carriers with proper aircraft flying off them. As Barrow-in-Furness is next door to my constituency—and, declaring a small interest, because my brother-in-law works at the Vickers shipyard there—I hope that it will be possible to build those carriers in Barrow.

One lesson we should learn from the 1920s—in contrast to the comments of the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann)—is that it would be a grave mistake in the context of joint operations to believe that only the RAF should fly aircraft off aircraft carriers. The Minister may recall that this was the position in the 1920s and early 1930s. It was regarded as a great mistake and it stunted the British lead in aircraft carrier technology. If that decision had not been reversed shortly before the outbreak of war, many people believe that the conduct of the early phase of the war could have been more disastrous than it was.

In the strategic defence review, I hope that the Minister does not repeat another mistake from the 1920s—the so-called 10-year rule, which was imposed by the Treasury in the first few years after the first world war on the assumption that there could be no serious external threat to the United Kingdom for a decade. Then, as now, the fact that the international climate seemed propitious did not mean that clouds could not rapidly gather in a blue sky. I hope that the review will put in place forces which will be flexible and appropriate enough to cope with a sharp and unexpected deterioration in the general international climate, as well as with occasional, but significant, out-of-theatre crises.

The Minister referred to the retirement of the RAF's nuclear capacity, the WE177 free-fall bombs. It is worth noting in the context of the various anniversaries we have marked that this will be a significant development in the history of the RAF which, for more than half of its existence, has had a nuclear role. From the battle of Britain, and before, the RAF has had a significant role in protecting our country, and we should pay tribute to its role in contributing to the nuclear deterrent, which has played a significant role in maintaining the peace and security of these islands.

The Minister said that it was the Government's policy that should there be clear progress towards genuine nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, the Government at some point would consider including the British nuclear deterrent—now solely Trident—within the negotiations. First, it is worth noting that a non-nuclear world is unattainable because the technology cannot be disinvented. With the internet and a scale of scientific exchange which would have been considered inconceivable in the 1940s, it is simply incredible to advance the proposition that the technology can be forgotten or controlled out of existence. We have had significant difficulties persuading, or enforcing, non-proliferation in one country—Iraq. We cannot believe that it is possible to do it across the world as a whole.

Secondly, I urge the Minister to reflect that a non-nuclear world is not necessarily desirable. If we compare the 50 years since the nuclear weapon was developed, with all its horrors and difficult moral challenges, with the 50 years before, we see that far fewer lives were lost in global conflict—even in medium-level conflict. I hope that the Government will not take the view without debate that a non-nuclear world is desirable, as real issues arise. Hon. Members from both sides of the House have spoken extensively about procurement. I add my support to the passionate and compelling case made by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) for the Slingsby Firefly aircraft. I hope that the Minister can assure us that the aircraft will be assessed by exactly the same criteria and that he will go not for the cheapest option, but for the one that provides best value for money in terms of performance and long-term, as well as short-term, running costs.

Dr. Reid

indicated assent.

Mr. Collins

I am glad to see the Minister nodding in response to that.

More broadly, procurement has an immense impact on aerospace, which is our most significant manufacturing industry. It is worth remembering that the Hercules, which has been mentioned many times in the debate, came into service in the late 1960s because a previous Labour defence review had cancelled the British alternative—the HS681.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot spoke of his support for supersonic vertical/short take-off and landing—again, we should note that that Labour defence review cancelled the P1154 Harrier. The Labour Government of the 1970s cancelled yet another supersonic carrier project, the AV 16. The United Kingdom aerospace industry is inevitably concerned about Labour defence reviews, and I am not even taking into account the magnificent TSR2, which was cancelled in 1965 by a Labour Government that had pledged at the 1964 election—

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

That was before the hon. Gentleman was born.

Mr. Collins

It was, in fact, the year I was born.

The Labour Government pledged in 1964 that they would not scrap the TSR2. However, they not only cancelled it, but—in an act of immense spite that is still talked about in the aerospace industry—ordered that the construction jigs should be destroyed to prevent a future Government from revisiting that decision. There is a long history of concern in the industry about the impact of Labour defence reviews on its projects and viability.

I hope that, in considering the strategic defence review, the Government will consider how to preserve and enhance a manufacturing industry that not only is the United Kingdom's largest, but above all others gives us a technological lead in Europe and the world. The industry's potential should never be underestimated.

With my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot and other hon. Members from both sides of the House, I had the pleasure and privilege to attend a briefing by the Society of British Aerospace Companies, which pointed out that the British aerospace industry represented 70 per cent. of the value, in terms of market capitalisation, of the whole European industry. The Ministry of Defence and the RAF will inevitably have not only an interest but a great say in the discussions about the so-called Euroco—the consolidation of the European aerospace industry—so it is important that the Minister recognises that the United Kingdom should use its immensely powerful bargaining chips and interests.

We must not do what we have done so often before—be terribly reasonable Anglo-Saxons in the face of French obduracy and allow the French to win out. Concorde is always spelt with an "e" because the French insisted on it for ever and a day until they got their way. The 1967 Anglo-French variable geometry project did not last long because, once the French had got hold of British swing-wing technology, they decided that they no longer wanted to take part but would build the aircraft themselves. It has been difficult to bring the French into collaborative projects for military procurement. They are not part of the Tornado or Eurofighter projects because they always choose to go their own way unless they can dominate the venture and run it for themselves.

I strongly urge the Minister and his colleagues in other Departments not to blink when, in considering British procurement policy and the British aerospace industry, the French insist on terms. No deal is better than a bad deal, and any deal would be bad that transferred control over the British aerospace industry, which is the most competitive in Europe, to France or Germany, whose industries are far less competitive. I hope that the Minister can say something about that.

The debate about the future of the RAF will always concern not only its relationship with the other services, as we have heard, but whether the manned aircraft will continue to play a role on the battlefield.

It is important for the Minister not to fall into two possible traps. The first would be to underestimate the importance of advancing technology and the increasing cost of aircraft, about which the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) spoke. We can see the possible end point of that in the American B2 bomber, each one of which costs $2 billion.

That is pretty absurd by anyone's standards, and one could project ahead to a point at which the entire RAF budget would be taken up by a single aircraft procured in a single year. That is clearly not sustainable. In the early 1970s, the Americans had a lightweight fighter project that resulted in the F16, and it may be sensible to consider carefully the balance between quality and quantity, although no one would want our pilots to fly in anything but the finest aircraft.

British Aerospace says that its industry these days is 50 per cent. software, and that is probably increasing. Those who go through Euston station as often as I do—on travels back and forth to my constituency—will have seen from a large poster there that it is possible for any of us to fly an F22 via a personal computer game.

As such technology advances, along with the advances in remotely piloted vehicles, Tomahawk cruise missiles and other technologies, it is important not to underestimate the ways in which some of the functions performed by manned aircraft may be able to be replaced; but the second trap to which I referred is that fallen into by a previous Conservative Government: in the infamous defence White Paper produced by Duncan Sandys in 1957, he suggested that the future of the RAF lay entirely with deploying rockets and missiles, and he cancelled a whole range of military aircraft projects.

More than 40 years on, it is clear that that judgment was wrong. For as far ahead as we can foresee, there will be some role for manned military aircraft. Not only do we want British pilots flying British skies in RAF aircraft, but as much as possible of the technology and hardware should be British. I hope that the Minister will be able to contribute to that.

9.7 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I must at the outset declare three interests. First, if I were not to confess to having participated in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I would not be listened to very attentively. Secondly, I have a professional interest, inasmuch as I have run an aviation consultancy company of my own for many years; I have always regarded professionalism in both aviation and politics as essential if one is not to come to grief. Thirdly, RAF Northolt is in my constituency. I believe that it is the oldest flying station still in active operation. It goes back to 1915, before the formation of the Royal Air Force, and is still going strong.

This debate has been illuminated by hon. Members of all parties, many of whom have been fascinated by air power and recognise the immense debt of gratitude that we owe to the Royal Air Force for the security of our country. Some have served in the air cadets; some have had flying scholarships at civil flying clubs paid for by the Royal Air Force; some are graduates of university air squadrons; and some have been involved in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, grappling with their stomachs in extraordinary attitudes and at high g-forces and emerging to tell the House how exciting their experiences were and how marvellous are the men and women of the service with which they have become acquainted.

We should be remiss not to pay tribute to former hon. Friends who participated in our past debates. Bill Walker, the former Member for North Tayside, flew Tempest aircraft, the last piston-engined fighters in Royal Air Force service, and was a doughty champion of the air cadets. Lord Hardy of Wath did his national service in the Royal Air Force and has never lost his love for the service, and he maintains his intense interest in it to this day. Keith Mans, the former Member for Wyre, was a Vulcan captain. That was an important role because, with the Victor and the Valiant, the Vulcan formed the deterrent force that preserved the peace during the cold war. He is to become secretary of the Royal Aeronautical Society. How lucky the society is to have him. Lord Monro still fulfils the illustrious function of Inspector General of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, and was a link with those who fought in the Royal Air Force in world war two.

In that connection, I cannot fail to mention as only one example of a generation to whom the House and the nation owe so much the late Wing Commander Laddie Lucas, who was Member for Brentford and Chiswick from 1950 to 1959, and commanded 249 Squadron in the defence of Malta in 1942. It was the highest-scoring squadron in the defence of the island, and he won the distinguished service order and the distinguished flying cross. He was encouraged to fight the 1945 general election and stood for West Fulham but did not beat Edith Summerskill. He returned to the Royal Air Force and brought back from France 180 bottles of champagne stowed underneath his fighter. In those days, it cost 12 shillings a bottle, and it was drunk at his wedding to the sister of Thelma Bader, the wife of Douglas Bader, of whom he wrote a wonderful biography, as he wrote so many books about the air war in world war two.

It is the 80th anniversary of the service. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) described in his book "Aces High" the life of combat pilots on the western front. Their lifespan was often measured in days or, if they were lucky, in weeks. They had little training and were courageous beyond our ken. It was not only on the western front but on the home front that they faced challenges. I found a poem in the Royal Air Force journal about Cranwell camp, HMS Daedalus, in 1916:

  • "There's sailors living in the huts
  • It fills my heart with sorrow.
  • With tear-dimmed eyes they say to me
  • It's Cranwell camp tomorrow.
  • Inside the huts live rats they say
  • As big as any goat.
  • Last night a sailor saw one
  • Trying on his overcoat.
  • It's miles away from anywhere
  • By Jove it is a rum one.
  • A man lived here for 50 years
  • And never saw a woman."
Times have changed. In 1920, the Royal Air Force college was founded and in 1933, the fine permanent buildings were established. Now, women officers are trained alongside their male counterparts, and the central flying school and the college of air warfare are also there. It is an outstanding centre of excellence.

In considering the history of the Royal Air Force, we should not forget the inter-war years. They were perhaps characterised by Trenchard's policy of air control, which those following the Iraqi crisis will understand. To symbolise that period, I thought most appropriate the early-day motion of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). A memorial to Flight Lieutenant Kinkead was erected on the 70th anniversary of his death. He flew in the Schneider trophy contest as a member of the Royal Air Force high speed flight. In the great war, he joined the Royal Naval Air Service, and later the Royal Air Force, gaining 32 aerial victories. Early-day motion 950 had 105 signatures. The Kinkead trophy is still awarded to this day at the Royal Air Force college at Cranwell.

The debate was opened by the Minister for the Armed Forces. It was perhaps a political dance of the seven veils—mysterious, tantalisingly unrevealing but, sad to say, much less exciting than the real thing. At the end of it, I wondered whether this was the same man who spoke in the Royal Air Force debate from the Opposition Dispatch Box a year ago. This time, his speech was much more inclusive—less incisive, but more inclusive. It included just about every kind of generality, but no answer to any question that I could gather was of concern to right hon. and hon. Members. At that opening stage, he made no observations about the RAF's equipment programme, which is central to its capabilities.

The Minister made some points that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) found interesting about the creation of a Defence Aviation Repair Agency, bringing together RAF St. Athan and Royal Naval station Fleetlands. I am sure that it is a sound move. I wonder whether it presages the creation of a joint support helicopter force, about which so much has been leaked in the press. If it does, I should have nothing against that, either. I am sure that it is a rational and logical development. I am also sure that the Minister is right to stress the importance of interoperability and integration.

As someone who has had the honour of taking two parliamentary delegations in the past three years to the Baltic states—first to Estonia and then to Latvia—let me say how much I welcome the initiative that the RAF is taking through the "Partnership for Peace" programme. That GR7 Harrier aircraft should have been out to Finland and the Baltic states as well as to Hungary, Bulgaria and Moldova, I find exciting. I am pleased that a Nimrod is going to the Baltic later this year. We should not forget Ukraine, which is pivotal to European security. It is exciting that, under the outreach programme, the RAF is to participate in the Kiev air show.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) mentioned the future of his station, and I must mention the future of mine. RAF Northolt is a station that fulfils a key role. It provides the transport of VIP personnel, Government Ministers and senior service officers. It is well located for the headquarters at Northwood, Bentley priory and High Wycombe and, of course, for Whitehall. It is important that it should remain in RAF hands. There should be no question of its becoming a sort of Heathrow north, with the RAF allowed to have just a little enclave.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury paid tribute to the work of the Defence Evaluation Research Agency armament and aircraft establishment at Boscombe Down. It is working at the frontier of aeronautics, proving aircrafts' worthiness for service use. It is the kind of institution that makes the United Kingdom a centre of military aviation excellence throughout the world. It is also the site of the Empire test pilots school.

My hon. Friend also stressed the importance of air cadets. So many hon. Members who have taken part in the debate have done the same, and I am glad that they have done so.

The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) made a puzzling speech. A number of my hon. Friends have commented on it. I found it moving that he paid a tribute to his father, who worked on Lancasters, Hampdens and Wellingtons, but he did not appreciate the crucial role of the RAF in securing the air superiority and dominance that are necessary in modern warfare.

The hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), who is not like one of the socialising members of the Labour party, is not in his place because, I gather, he had to go to Buckingham palace. He spoke about the importance to Scotland and Northern Ireland of an air officer. We should note what he said. He also stressed the importance to the RAF of the ASTOR system for the provision of effective intelligence and the control and command that it provides through battlefield surveillance. Such functions will be needed whatever the international situation, and such a system is a potential peacekeeping asset. It has the potential to win wars, and it builds confidence.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) spoke with knowledge and commitment about the stores and distribution centre and the mountain rescue team at Stafford. Logistics is as crucial in modern operations as it always has been. I recently visited RAF Wyton and found that it had been transformed from the flying station that I knew into a centre for logistics command. The work there was as thrilling and exciting as, I am sure, the work that the hon. Gentleman witnesses in his constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) spoke with great authority without in any way being didactic. I should like to re-emphasise a couple of his points. First, we should not go down the Canadian route because individual service identities are still immensely important. Above all, it would be much better if the Government felt able to publish the foreign policy baselines for the strategic defence review.

The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) went from the Air Training Corps into the airborne forces, and that demonstrates the importance of the corps in providing air-mindedness in the broadest sense. The hon. Gentleman supports the Firefly. It is an excellent aeroplane; otherwise, it would not be operating with the RAF and in the American service north and south of the US-Canadian border. Thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), I had the privilege of flying the 260 version and I have also flown lower-powered versions. It is a lovely aeroplane and I hope that it is chosen but, of course, the Royal Air Force will decide.

Like all my hon. Friends, my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) made an excellent speech. It is remarkable how well they speak. My hon. Friend has a real understanding of the values and ethos of the service, and his acquaintance with the parliamentary armed forces scheme deepened the local service knowledge that he has acquired in Gloucestershire. He made an important contribution to the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) is from the other side of the Kemble runway. I remember it because I used to fly Hunters from it. He made a marvellous speech, but he was far too eulogistic about me. He said that I spoke for 35 minutes in last year's debate, but I spoke for less than half that time. If I thought that I had spoken for 35 minutes, I should be seriously worried.

If the Minister remembers nothing else, he will at least remember my hon. Friend's comments about the sewers at Lyneham.

Mr. Gray

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend because I am greatly enjoying his speech. I have already been accused once of misleading the House and I am keen that that should not happen again. The Official Report for Thursday 6 February 1997 shows that my hon. Friend started to speak at 7.27 pm and that the hon. Member who followed him rose at 7.57 pm. I am afraid to say that that is exactly half an hour.

Mr. Wilkinson

Well, mathematics never was my strong point. I learned mine before the days of calculators. I do not know whether Bill Walker rose to speak or to intervene, but we shall study Hansard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot—a flying scholar, as I said—gave us a lesson in the importance of air power as such. He also emphasised how crucial Eurofighter 2000 and short take-off vertical landing aircraft are for the future of the Royal Air Force. I believe that the joint striker-fighter will be a crucial element of bringing together the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, which are already flying together very effectively in joint air groups, as shown during the latest episode in the Gulf.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who spent much longer than I in the Ministry of Defence—that is why the Ministry of Defence has progressed so far and so fast—described from an historical perspective the nature of the Royal Air Force, and its importance to the country as a separate service. I was struck by his professional judgment, as a former regular Army officer, of the merits of the C 17 heavy lifter. He also understood the potential of the C130J, which we hope will come into service in the relatively near future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) made a speech of great fluency, rationality and distinction. I have a house on top of the Pennines, and I rather like the low flying aircraft, but I realise that I am not typical. In a balanced and well-argued speech, my hon. Friend drew attention to the potential nuisance that continues to be caused to his constituents by Royal Air Force low flying aircraft. However, I feel that the Royal Air Force is managing the problem well. It goes out of its way to explain to hon. Members the precautions it takes, and how sensitive it is, in conducting those necessary operations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale did us all a service in reminding us of the crucial role that the Royal Air Force played in sustaining the peace during the cold war, when it was responsible for the nuclear deterrent. Now, of course, the WE177 is being phased out. During the cold war, the Healey axe—the abandonment of the 1154, the HS681 and the TSR2— were cataclysmic events for the service, and have led to the folk memory, which persists for good reason, to the effect that the Royal Air Force is not necessarily happy unless it has in power a Labour Government who have genuinely changed their attitude to defence.

We shall see whether Labour has changed its attitude when the defence review is finally published. Until then, we must suspend judgment. All I know is that the Royal Air Force is down to 53,000 men—to my mind, the absolute minimum. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot emphasised the importance of flying hours. Tornado F3 crews fly about 183 flying hours a year; Tornado GRI crews, 210; Harrier crews, 206; and Jaguar crews, 197.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot was right to say that we should keep the Jaguars. Those three squadrons are extremely cost-effective. The fact that I worked on the project when it was a prototype does not mean that I say so for sentimental reasons. Those squadrons proved themselves over Bosnia and in the Gulf war, and they are now acquiring the thermal imaging and laser designation system, and the hands-on throttle and stick. The aircraft has been upgraded extremely well at St. Athan, which the Minister visited. The Jaguar's cost per flying hour is only £13,000—markedly less than that of the Tornado, which is £23,000. The maintenance hours per flying hour are 12.2 for the Jaguar and 17 for the Tornado. I urge the Ministry of Defence to think very carefully before disbanding those two offensive support and one reconnaissance Jaguar squadrons, certainly until Eurofighter comes into service. We do not want a hiatus in the front line.

If the Minister is worried, may I suggest that the Royal Auxiliary Air Force could crew those aircraft. They might be operated at lower intensity, but it would make good sense. The Royal Auxiliary Air Force has played a crucial role in this period of diminished manpower strength in the service. As the regular manpower has declined, so the number of roles taken on by the Royal Auxiliary Air Force has increased.

How right my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire was to mention his casualty evacuation squadron, the Wiltshire squadron, which is an example of the imaginative new role that the auxiliaries are now taking on. They are reverting to their traditional flying role, which they had until 1957, although they do not yet have formed flying units.

The armed forces, particularly the RAF, have benefited from the Reserve Forces Act 1996, which we put in place at the end of our term of office. If offers a ready reserve and a sponsored reserve. That is the key to making contractorisation a success. I have seen at RAF Northolt occasions when it has not been a success. The 146 emergency landing at Stansted is a case in point. Then there was that ghastly business of the Airwork Tornados at St. Athan. However, we are moving forward.

If contractor personnel are subject to service discipline, can be required to wear uniform and can be called to the colours in emergency or war, many of the inhibitions to their cost-effective use can be removed. That is why I would also urge sponsored reserve engineering personnel. I have seen, as has the Minister, how well RAF St. Athan works. It is crucial to be able to augment capacity in time of emergency or war. St. Athan provides that. We must have a balance between regulars, reservists and contractors. That is the way forward.

The Royal Air Force needs above all to maintain its integrity. It must maintain its principles of service before self and its overriding doctrine that only the highest standards will suffice. The service is looking resolutely to the future.

I hope that, in Whitehall, it is understood that command of space is just as crucial for war winning in the future and for the prevention of war as is control of the air. Before too long, we shall face the necessity of putting into place a ballistic missile defence system for our country, and I hope that it is under serious consideration.

The quality of a country's armed forces reflects a nation's self-esteem. The value that a nation places on its liberty and its institutions is reflected in the quality of the armed forces that serve it. We are extremely fortunate in having in the RAF a service of the very highest quality.

9.33 pm
Dr. Reid

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I say—I am sure the House will agree—how good it was to see the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) at the Dispatch Box. For many years I have listened to his speeches from the Back Benches—always short, sharp and concise, and, in my experience, never running to more than 17 minutes. Although it is form to pay such tributes, on the occasions that I have listened to him, the sincerity, passion and patriotism that he brings to these issues has shone through whatever he has said, whether from the Front or the Back Benches.

The hon. Gentleman's speech tonight, and also that of the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who opened for the Opposition, shows that it is possible to develop—over time, and not without pain, anguish and the biting of tongues—a consensual framework on national security and defence issues. That does not mean that hon. Members on either side of the House have to be bland or uncritical or enter into a form of bondage to the other side.

I think that tonight's debate is the best that I have heard. Although the contributions have been small in number, their quality has been very high—as they say in Scotland, good gear comes in small bulk. I thank the hon. Member for Salisbury for his compliments about my collective, inclusive, caring, sharing, consumer-friendly speech—what a pity that he added that I did not answer any of his questions. I shall now attempt to do that, starting with what I know to be the most important. I have taken immediate advice from my officials about those questions that I cannot answer and instructed them to find out the answers.

The first question, which I know is of particular importance to Conservative Members, was raised by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who asked about the temperature of the chardonnay served in the office of the Minister for the Armed Forces. I have taken immediate advice about that, and I understand—of course, I am not in breach of the convention that we should not ask about our predecessors—that, in days past, claret was the order of the day and that it was best served at the slightly warmer end of the scale. While I am on the subject, I ask Conservative Members to thank their friends for the Christmas gifts of quails' eggs, claret and grilled rare species, but I would be grateful if they would tell them that there is a new Minister for the Armed Forces.

I shall deal with one or two of the myths that were put about today. On the question of news management, I hope that hon. Members will not assume that every mistake that appears in the Sunday Times is the fault of the Ministry of Defence. We do not have enough people or time to create or be responsible for every mistake that appears in the Sunday newspapers. I assure the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) that some of the detail that appears in the Sunday papers is news to me as well as to him. Like any Government Department, we like to present our case, but we are not into spin. This is a serious Department of State, and it will be treated seriously by this Administration.

Several hon. Members referred generally to inter-service rivalry. I pay tribute to the three services, from the chiefs of staff—Dick Johns in the Air Force, Jock Slater in the Navy, and Roger Wheeler in the Army—down. There has been unparalleled openness and a willingness to look critically, to learn and to be flexible, and all the politicians involved have agreed with every outcome that has been achieved. Politicians, the military, civil servants and the wider services have made a genuine attempt to co-operate, and I dispute any suggestion—through leaks and so on—that there have been any significant inter-service rivalries. The services are a credit to their country, and that bodes well for their future integrated operation.

Mr. Gray

I am happy to accept the Minister's assurances that there are no inter-service rivalries. Does that apply also to the Regular Army and the Territorial Army? Will he assure the House that, if there are heavy cuts in the Territorial Army in the SDR, they are in no way the result of the Regular Army's involvement in the committees?

Dr. Reid

An obvious distinction between the Regular Army and the Territorial Army is that the Territorial Army and most of its components have the freedom to lobby publicly. The TA can send letters to Members of Parliament and urge them to defend the TA against the Regulars in debates. It can hold rallies and send the Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve. The regular Army does not have that luxury: that is the obvious difference between the reserve forces and the Territorial Army and the regulars.

I would like to think that the contribution made by those in charge—particularly Richard Holmes, to whom the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) referred—has been constructive. I hope that it has been protective of the Territorial Army, not in terms of what it has achieved in the past but in terms of what it can give us today, tomorrow and in the future. Richard Holmes has done a stalwart job.

I shall single out one speech—mainly because I agreed with the three main points in it. I refer to the contribution made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins). To my knowledge, I had not heard the hon. Gentleman speak before this evening. I was most impressed—as, I think, was the House. I made inquiries and was told that, by reputation, he is one of the bright young men of the Conservative party. If that is his reputation, all I can say, at risk of doing him down, is that he deserves it.

The hon. Gentleman's presentation—on Ernest Bevin, on the potential for the emerging threat, on the experience of the 10-year rule of the 1930s—along with the balanced way in which he approached the deterrent and the dishonesty that would ensue if we were to try to create the illusion that there are immediate foreseeable chances of a nuclear-free world, was highly meritorious.

The hon. Member for Salisbury, who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench, raised some extremely important points. I am grateful to him for conveying to us, as he sometimes does in private, some of the worries and concerns that perhaps people do not express to a Minister. We all know, as Billy Connolly once said, that the Queen thinks that the world smells of fresh paint. Wherever Her Majesty goes, someone is presenting the best side of life.

The RAF achieved close to 90 per cent. of last year's recruitment target—not 100 per cent., and we need 100 per cent. However, some branches and trades are traditionally unattractive to recruits, and I think that 90 per cent. was a formidable result. We are actively considering ways further to maximise recruitment to the service to meet this year's target of 4,300 personnel.

I accept that there is tremendous competition from outside, especially from British Airways and other commercial firms, which are looking for a significant number of pilots. That is not being ignored. We are actively developing schemes that we hope will result in our getting three or four more years out of each individual in the RAF. It is when people reach 33 or 34 that problems occur. The schemes that we are developing will help private firms to plan ahead and, simultaneously, will give security to individual pilots at the age of 33 or 34. They will know that in a few years' time they will have a job. I do not want to go into any further detail. As I have said, we are actively working on developing appropriate schemes.

The hon. Member for Salisbury talked about single service debate timing. That is a matter for discussion through the usual channels. The hon. Gentleman raised the more important issue of RAF family concerns. I understood that there was to be ministerial involvement at the RAF wives conference. I met the Army Families Federation. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was to be involved with RAF family concerns, but then had to make new arrangements to be at the cenotaph as the Government's representative on ANZAC day. I understand that that was all within the past few days. No further rearrangement has been possible.

The hon. Gentleman referred to complaints about treatment received by wives of RAF personnel from the Department of Social Security. These are wives who return to the United Kingdom and are looking for a job. They meet some difficulties because they have not been deemed available for work while they have been moving around. I have already given the hon. Gentleman assurances that I shall raise the matter. From memory, I have already written to the Department of Social Security in an attempt to take up the issue.

The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) talked about strategic lift and heavy lift. As for the future fleet mix—whether to buy more C130Js or C 17s, for example—the hon. Gentleman must await the outcome of the strategic defence review, as he would expect me to say. The mix is obviously an important part of the strategic development of our forces in general. On whether to buy more C130Js or Cl7s, and so on, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman must await the outcome of the SDR, but we are looking at that mix as an important part of the strategic development of our forces in general.

Specifically on C130Js, they are late, but Lockheed intends to deliver the aircraft more quickly than it has. We will, of course, put in a claim against Lockheed for delays in getting the aircraft into service, and that will accrue to the RAF.

The hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), who is no longer with us, referred, as did the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, to the position of Air Officer Commanding Scotland and Northern Ireland. We have noted what they said and will ensure that it is taken into account, with other issues that were raised, in the final outcome of the strategic defence review.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) raised the issue of the storage depot at Stafford. I should like to associate myself with the tributes that he paid to the people working there.

I return to an issue that was raised by almost every hon. Member in a more general sense than just the C130Js—heavy lift. We have inherited a shortfall in strategic lift capability. The SDR is determined to find out what action is needed on airlift and sealift to address the issue.

The Government believe that the future large aircraft could be a capable aircraft. The decision on whether it is the solution to our future transport needs will be made in the light of the review's conclusions. The competition between the C17 and the FLA is important, because it will help us to make our final decision in the SDR. I cannot go much further on the point that the C17 would be a better aircraft than the FLA, as it is premature to speculate on the eventual solution, but I can assure the House that most of the points made tonight have not only been taken into account but were debated vigorously over time.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) was in emollient mood tonight. He made his usual constructive interventions. I knew that there was no aggression coming from him, because his moustache was not twitching. We all exhibit different signs when filled with adrenaline, and I knew that the static moustache position tonight meant that he would make a constructive contribution. He raised a point about the policy baseline. I had responded to that earlier—obviously, in his view, thoroughly inadequately, although since in his perception I so often respond thoroughly inadequately, I will not bore the House by going through all the speeches made by the Secretary of State, even if some hon. Members would like me to.

The question of Hawk availability, in particular in relation to RAF Valley, was raised by the hon. Member for Salisbury and several others. I said, perhaps in a non-consensual spirit, that, if some of the problems that they were identifying were true today, they were problems that some of us had identified some years ago. Indeed, some Opposition Members made the point about future contracts and the private sector being able to bid for a tender previously held by the RAF. Companies in the private sector could put in a cheaper tender because they know that they could recruit RAF specialists who are already trained, and pay them less because they have an RAF pension.

I am aware, because I have been down to RAF Valley a number of times and have discussed this with the people involved, that there has been a shortfall in the provision of sufficient aircraft from the maintenance lines to meet the flying requirement. That is a serious matter, and one that concerns me.

A key contributory factor has been the contractor's difficulty in recruiting sufficiently experienced personnel. In fairness to the contractor, it would also say that one of the problems was that we had contracted to supply a number of Hawks which we did not ultimately supply. But I can tell the House that the RAF is working closely with the contractor to resolve the position. To some extent, they are teething problems, and they are being overcome. They will not be fully overcome this year—and perhaps not even next year in terms of the training hours that we envisaged at the beginning. Therefore, we are also looking outside RAF Valley to see where we might achieve access to other Hawks or to more training hours.

On the brighter side, in the main the operation has been a success. About £5 million has been delivered in annual savings. However, I do not want to think that the story is over. When the contracts come up for renewal, we may find, in line with the strictures of the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), that we have to have regard to the longer-term costings as well as the short-term costings, and that we have to take into account morale, which is hard to evaluate, skills and training and research capacity. All those are thrown in with uniformed personnel.

One of the ways of proceeding is to look at the sponsored reserve, which the previous Government put through the Reserve Forces Act 1996, which I supported at the time and still do. Another is to consider the experience of privatisation. I assure the House that we do not approach that ideologically. We do not take the view that everything must be retained in-house or pushed out of house. We judge the matter as best we can on the merits and in the light of experience.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

My key point about contractorisation was about the need to ensure that, when the contracts are renewed, there are sufficient trained people for the future contract to be renewed at a reasonable price.

Dr. Reid

Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I thought that that was the point that I was referring to just before I referred to him. I included him as having raised that point.

With regard to the future offensive air system raised by several hon. Members, we are studying a range of options. As all hon. Members want a timetable, we shall try to avoid both extremes against which we have been warned. We expect to be in a position to make a decision on the way forward around the turn of the century. I shall not, therefore, be making any predictions on that tonight. However, we are well aware of the longer-term importance of the project to the defence aerospace industry, and it will be one of the many factors taken into account in deciding the way forward on the future offensive air system.

The hon. Member for Aldershot—and, I think, one other hon. Member-referred to the important beyondvisual—range missile project. That will also be somewhat delayed, not because of the strategic defence review, but because contracts for project definition risk reduction work and the BVRAAM air-to-air missile for Eurofighter were placed with Hughes, now Raytheon Systems, and Matra-BAe in August 1987. We expected a decision on placing a development and production contract, but not, I regret, until the summer of 1999. I take on board the points made by the hon. Gentleman, particularly given that Eurofighter is linked with the decision on which missile, and when one considers the implications for the export of Eurofighter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) and several others raised the question of Chinook and the Mull of Kintyre, as did the Opposition spokesman. That is a matter of great sensitivity, on which no one can ever say that the decision has been taken, that minds are closed or that, whatever happens, nothing can ever change.

My approach has been, even at great cost of myself, to study all the aspects as much as I can within the time limits placed on me. If new relevant and substantial information comes to us, we shall look at the matter again. I have no problem with hon. Members contining to ask questions. I am still dealing with questions, and the hon. Member for Salisbury, who came to see me on the matter, still has to give me a number of detailed points to which he wants answers. The matter is on-going, but my position remains as it was. I have no monopoly on infallibility—any more than anyone else has—but, at the moment, there is no reason to reopen the matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North and the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) mentioned the important and sensitive subject of the Bulldog replacement project. Hon. Members will forgive me if I do not respond to each matter that was raised, because that would be inappropriate for such a contract and it would be unfair to both sides to go through the issues in a public forum.

I shall make a decision very soon, and it will be based on the best value for money for the aircraft that does the job best. As the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood requested, I shall pay great attention to what the experts—the RAF, which will have to use the aircraft—have to say. I do not want to go further than that, but I hope that hon. Members will not have to wait much longer for an answer, with which they may or may not agree and which will not have been reached without great study.

On the question of morale, Ministers accept that the RAF has been going through a difficult period of change for several years. If the hon. Member for Salisbury thinks that morale is fragile, he should have seen it three years ago. As the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife acknowledged, it was at rock bottom. Morale in the RAF is better than it was then. There is instability and insecurity, which is understandable because of the defence review, but we should note that air power remains a crucial element of our defence capability.

From my contacts with them, I believe that RAF personnel are generally content with their professional employment. There are attractions outside the RAF, but I have spoken to people who have gone as pilots to the civil sector. As in any job, the grass always looks greener on the other side. People have left the RAF to shuttle between Glasgow and Edinburgh three times a day. In the RAF they had job satisfaction and commitment to public service, and the surge of adrenalin brought about by the feeling that they were doing well not only for their country, but for the world. Some people with new jobs sometimes feel that they would rather be back in the RAF—there are attractions to the service.

The shortfall in manning, which we inherited and which we shall do our best to get rid of over the next few years, is 3.4 per cent., or 1,850 people. I hope to reduce it to about 1.2 per cent., or 600 people, by April 1999.

Several hon. Members asked about retention. I have said that we already have detailed plans under way. I entirely agree with the points made by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood and several other hon. Members about the cadets. The cadets are good not just as a recruiting source for RAF officers, but as a major contribution to young people: they provide opportunities and help to develop, mould and shape future initiative and character. I want the cadets to continue to thrive.

Eurofighter is needed. The Warsaw pact-produced aircraft and the countries that obtained them are a direct threat to our forces, and we must give them the best, because, with the RAF, we have the best personnel. I express again the congratulations and deep gratitude not only of the House but of this country's people for 80 years of solid, absolute commitment by the RAF.

Mr. Gray

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did indeed mislead the House slightly earlier when I claimed that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) had spoken for 30 minutes last year. On careful reflection and looking at Hansard even more carefully, I realised that I had missed the fact that someone else had spoken in that time and that my hon. Friend did, indeed, speak for only 17 minutes. I regret the fact that I misled the House on that point.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

I am sure that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) has noted the hon. Gentleman's apology.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.